Saturday, August 01, 2015

Scriabin's 10 piano sonatas, with their progression toward atonality and compression

I picked up the complete piano sonatas by Alexander Scriabin on London (recorded from 1975 to 1987) played by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The first CD contains the first four sonatas.  #1 (F Minor), and #2 (G# Minor) sound the most influenced by the big Chopin Bb-minor sonata:  #1 ends with a funeral march, and the second movement of #2 resembles the presto finale from the Chopin.

Sonata #3 in F# Minor (Op. 23) is the biggest and most obviously post-romantic, in four movements, with a big climax (though reverting to minor) at the very end.   But Sonata #4, in F#, is maybe my favorite, short (two movements) but triumphant, as Scriabin’s later style starts to emerge.

The second disc has the last six sonatas, all in one movement (varying from 8 to 13 minutes each).  Each sonata has many tempo and time-signature changes, and they are all fascinating to follow on YouTube with a piano score.

Sonata #5 is in the odd key of D# Minor, and still has some vestiges of old post romanticism. But the work end on a single high D# note, fortissimo, after the big building.

The remaining sonatas omit key signatures, and show Scriabin’s interest in building themes out of certain interval relationships among the notes, especially using his “Mystic Chord”.  #6 was the “darkest” and Scriabin was superstitious about it. #7 is the famous “White Mass” and ends with a curious soft treble trill.  It also has an unresolved dissonance near the end with all 12 notes at once (a similar effect occurs in the slow movement of the Bruckner Ninth, probably inspired all the way back by such a shocking dissonance in Beethoven’s Eroica).  #8 and #10 did not impress me that much (#10 is more Debussy-like and has less reference to old post-romanticism). But #9, the “Black Mass”, while short, is one of the best.  The ear (mine at least) starts to learn it quickly with repeat hearings.  The four-note motto (built on intervals) seems striking, and recurs constantly in the passage work.  (Timo Andres gets a similar effect at one point in his “Good Composer” piece, as I recall.)  Unlike the first five Sonatas, all five of the last sonatas end quietly and somewhat abruptly, as if to ask the listener to respond.

Scriabin is said to have developed his own technique to achieve atonality, which is different from Schoenberg and Berg.  It sounds a little more “French” (not Russian) to me. 

The first CD has some other selections: “Quatre Morceaux, Deux Danses, Deux Poemes”, and the second has another “Quarte Morceaux”.

It's rather odd for iTunes to view these works as "songs". 


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