Talking to a reviewer colleague during the intermission of Garrick Ohlsson’s all-Scriabin recital at London’s Wigmore Hall, he commented that he just "couldn't get Scriabin." This was after we had heard the “White Mass” Piano Sonata (No. 7 in F-sharp), a work of complexity, impetuosity, luminosity, exuberance, voluptuousness and ecstatic rapture. A sonata only in name, this is a work that might have been written yesterday with its forward-looking experiments in dissonance, atonality and harmonic flux. Returning for the second half, I wondered whether it might be easier to simply abandon oneself to this extraordinary music without the need to comprehend or analyze it.
Garrick Ohlsson’s “Skryabin Focus” at Wigmore Hall, a two-concert celebration of the Russian composer on the 100th anniversary of his death, opened with a recital held, appropriately, on the composer’s birthday, which in the Julian calendar (to which Russia then subscribed) is Christmas Day. This fact alone suggests we are dealing with an unusual personality, and as time went on, and Scriabin’s egocentric obsessions increased, he began to regard himself as a second Messiah whose music would have a purifying, unifying and life-changing effect on all mankind. Add to this his interest in spirituality, the theosophy of Madame Blavasky, the writings of Nietzsche, his synesthesia (which is what originally drew me to his piano music) and his assertion that there was an aesthetic connection between musical harmony and shades of color, and we have an extreme personality at work. This heady mix produced music which is languorous, sensuous, demonic, enigmatic, erotic, febrile and over-heated. Hyper-everything, his music is lush, gorgeous and inspired, always ecstatic. It is these aspects which many listeners, and artists, find off-putting, and the reason why Scriabin’s music is so rarely performed today. Yet for American pianist Garrick Ohlsson these are the very qualities which drew him to Scriabin’s music in the first place, and his fascination for Scriabin began after he heard Sviatoslav Richter perform the seventh piano sonata. He admits to being totally overwhelmed by the experience, but could not explain why, only that he wanted to explore the music further. As a young student, studying with a Russian teacher, Ohlsson admits to thinking Scriabin was “mainstream” because all the Russian pianists he heard at the time (Ashkenazy, Gilels, Richter) were playing Scriabin.
Scriabin’s career was dominated by the piano, and like Chopin, who was a major influence on his early music, he displayed an affinity for the instrument’s distinct soundworld. His early music, written when he was still a teenager, shows the influence of Chopin, but is already peppered with distinct idioms and chromatic traits which mark it out as the work of a young composer finding his individual musical voice and persona. His middle period, coming after he gave up his day job as a music teacher to concentrate fully on composing, has a post-Wagnerian voluptuousness and flamboyance, while his late music is refined and mystical and offers intriguing hints of where he might have gone next had he not died in 1915 at the age of 43. There are hints of Schoenberg and Messiaen in his experiments with atonality, his intriguing harmonic palette and jerky, jazzy syncopations.
The program was organized chronologically to give the listener a taste of all three periods of Scriabin’s life. Short pieces — preludes, etudes, morceaux — were used by Ohlsson to “tune the ears” and get the audience into the vein for the longer sonatas. The opening A minor Prelude, Op. 11 No. 2 (see video clip above, from 2008), a relatively juvenile work, showed intriguing hints of what was to come, and revealed Ohlsson to be a thoughtful and sensitive player, whose exemplary control and voicing immediately engaged the listener. In the Sonatas, particularly in the seventh and the closing fifth, Ohlsson proved himself an equal match for the physical and emotional demands of these works. Muscularity combined with a velvet touch to deliver ethereally tinkling chord clusters high in the treble and a full orchestral sound, when required, which was rich in clarity and vividly expressive. At the final bravura flourish of the fifth sonata, Ohlsson lept from the piano stool to rapturous applause and cheering, gestures which I feel sure Scriabin would have enjoyed.
Smiling and genial, Ohlsson gave three generous encores, more etudes by Scriabin, all poetically delivered, which left us wanting more. Because here is a pianist who really “gets” this music, and who can take the listener on an exciting and revealing journey into the strange world of Alexander Scriabin.
(This article first appeared on Bachtrack.com)