Zixiang Wang — First Piano Sonatas: Scriabin, Rachmaninoff — Blue Griffin

by | Mar 31, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 6; RACHMANINOFF: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28; Prelude in F Major (1891),  – Zixiang Wang, piano – Blue Griffin BGR579  64:15 (Distr. by Albany] ****:

Chinese piano virtuoso Zixiang Wang unites two contemporary Russian composers, Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) in their respective first sonatas for solo piano. Scriabin had injured his right hand—much in the manner of his admired Robert Schumann—through excessive practice. Still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, Scriabin in his frustration with his thwarted solo career, conceived a “sonata with a funeral march for the right hand.” Scriabin utilizes a constant three-note motif: F-G-A-flat as a unifying device will undergo transformations in the Liszt tradition of variation and dynamic modification. Anger and despair mark this large composition, a protest against what Scriabin called “the whims of God’s design.” Wang imbues the secondary theme in A-flat Major of the first movement, Allegro con fuoco, with a majestic nobility, and the urge to F Major seeks vainly for relief from the sense of personal loss. 

Scriabin follows with an Adagio movement in the traditionally sad C Minor; the movement’s chordal texture plays as a hymn. There appears a search for a spiritual consolation that would only later occur in Scriabin’s music, in the form of personal mysticism. The music resolves into C Major, much in the spirit of a Chopin nocturne. The third movement, Presto returns to a stormy F Minor, rife with irregular agogics symptomatic of Scriabin’s injured hand. The music relents temporarily only to close with an effondredment subit, a sudden collapse passage, that leads to the F Minor last movement, the funeral march conceived after Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. Emergent from the piano’s middle register, the march ascends with a grim inevitability. The desperation abates for a middle section that might be construed as a dream sequence, an episode of detachment from human ills. The march, however, resumes without mercy, seeking the upper register for a final cry of the heart in bell tones. 

Rachmaninoff’s D Minor Sonata is the product of his time in Dresden, 1907, a time when he would have preferred to have fashioned a symphony based on the model provided by Liszt in Eine Faust-Symphonie. In a letter to Morozov, Rachmaninoff complained that his new sonata “will be played by no one because of its length and difficulty.” Besides its literary allusion to the Faust myth, the work capitalizes on three elements: the interval of the fifth, scalar patterns, and repeated notes. Pianist Konstantin Igumnov, who confirmed the Goethe reference, claimed that the open fifth motif heralded the world of legend. The music of the Allegro moderato utilizes impressive silences to punctuate its progressive drama, which often whirls in runs and scales. The titanic struggle in the movement among the motifs includes references to the ubiquitous Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass. The music passes into the relative major with its plainchant sonority. We often feel not so much a programmatic reference in this passionate music as much as Wang’s volatility invokes Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. The coda, quite extended, moves in the major mode, a sense of some spiritual victory.

The second movement, an intimate Lento, relies heavily on the falling fifth interval. Adhering to the middle range of the keyboard, this music retains an arioso of operatic grace and charm, the equivalent to Liszt’s “Gretchen” in his Faust-Symphonie. A descending second with a dotted rhythm followed by the ascent of the fifth marks this primarily melodious section. The middle section, which permits Wang to display his gift for clearly articulated counterpoint, might suggest the complexity of emotion, even in love. Shifting trills permeate the melodic line of the coda, a kind of oscillating and anxious sonority Rachmaninoff knew from Beethoven late sonatas. The theatrical, even histrionic, aspects of the Faust motif, here in the virtuosic last movement Allegro molto in the form of Liszt’s Mephistopheles, bursts forth in the persistent call of the Dies Irae.

Wang must operate in the grand style throughout, imposing multiple layers of sound and texture in music of diversely vital momentum. Early on, the music gallops towards the abyss. The plainchant motif intermixes with bits of recitative and tormented, jabbing bell tones, in which even the shift to major invokes an uneasy truce. Wang himself suggests a kind of cathedral has been ineluctably revealing itself to the world. The music denies consolations and moves convulsively into its centered D Minor. An explosive, tragic sensibility dominates this last movement, thick with major-key reminiscence of a “paradise lost.” The elements of the D Minor Piano Concerto, Op. 30 seem to loom before us, in bountiful suggestion.

Wang concludes with Rachmaninoff’s youthful Prelude in F Major, his Op. 2, No. 1 from 1892, albeit originally in an arrangement for piano and cello. A cross of the parlando in Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Chopin, the piece enjoys a natural fluency and idyllic charm that pairs middle and high registers in a duet, warm with arpeggios. It’s been a fiercely tender ride in Russian Romanticism, and well recorded.

—Gary Lemco

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