One hundred years to the day since the death of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, American pianist Garrick Ohlsson concluded his two-concert “Skryabin Focus” at London’s Wigmore Hall with a recital of works which spanned the final two decades of Scriabin’s life.
It is hard to explain exactly what makes Scriabin’s music so compelling: far easier to explain why his music is not for everyone. It is the music of excess, ecstasy, tumult and passion. It is excessive, overripe, decadent, heavily perfumed, languorous and frenzied, lacking in structure and sometimes downright bizarre. The music of extremes, it is hyper everything, and as such it defies description or categorization. Its language is complex, often atonal and frequently almost impenetrable. For some listeners, and artists too, it is this “over-the-top-ness” that is off-putting; for others, myself and my concert companion included, it is this sense of excess and rapture that is so compelling. By his own admission, Garrick Ohlsson is a true Scriabin fan, the result of hearing Sviatoslav Richter perform the Seventh Piano Sonata. Ohlsson’s studies with a Russian teacher enabled him to regard Scriabin as “mainstream repertoire” and the composer’s music remains a mainstay of his repertoire.
A degree of “lateral listening” is useful in appreciating Scriabin’s music, a case of “if you like, Chopin, or Rachmaninov, you will also like this”; and while it is true that his earlier music certainly seems closer to these masters of the Romantic in its idioms, textures, melodic lines and pungent harmonies, his later music looks forward to Schoenberg and Messiaen, ragtime and jazz with its curious tonalities and piquant harmonic shifts.
The opening Prelude (Op. 11, no. 5) was a miniature exercise in stillness and intensity which revealed Garrick Ohlsson to be a master of timing, and “time out of time”, a thread which ran through the whole programme and enabled Ohlsson to savour Scriabin’s climactic writing. It also set up an atmosphere of concentration and attentive listening which pervaded the hall for the entire concert.
The first Sonata was composed a year after Scriabin left the conservatoire and at a time when he was raging against a self-inflicted injury to his right hand, the result of over-practising. The work is a testament to the composer’s own phenomenal technique and Ohlsson’s ease in this music, his deft handling of the dramatic shifts of mood, colour, texture and dynamics evidence of his own superior technique. Ohlsson also possesses the requisite colour palette and tonal shading coupled with an ability to produce a full, rich sound that can easily fool the uninformed that this music is by Rachmaninov.
Not so the second Prelude of the concert, Op 59, no. 2, which opens a window onto the way Scriabin’s musical thinking was leading him in his later music, both in terms of tonality and rhythmic pulse. A volatile stream of harmonic consciousness, it led us neatly into the single-movement Eighth Sonata. Ohlsson treated this more as a rhapsody or tone poem than a sonata, highlighting the fleeting and fragmentary motifs, haloes of sounds and ethereal ornamentation. The music seems to wander in and out of curious tonal regions, and it is this uncertain harmonic landscape which can make the music so unsettling and lacking in structure. What Ohlsson does so well is avoid any obvious attempt to bring order to these seemingly disparate elements. Instead, he allows the music to flow and speak for itself.
The “Black Mass” Sonata concluded the first half. Perhaps the most infamous of all of the piano sonatas, and another single-movement sonata, it seems filled with malicious intent with its spookily unsettling harmonic shifts and propulsive rhythms.
A return to more familiar Russian romantic territory in the Third Piano Sonata, which encapsulates Scriabin’s compositional landscape in the immediate post-student years: rhythmic inflections, harmonic and richly textured colouring, grand gestures and climactic interludes. Meanwhile, the Tenth (and final) Sonata takes us into another world entirely. Improvisatory and sensual, its falling motifs and shimmering trills seem to be draped ethereally over music which is saturated in spiritual rapture and a breathless ecstasy. Again, Ohlsson seemed entirely comfortable in this music, allowing it spaciousness and vivid expression.
After such excesses, so many climaxes and false-climaxes, one is left feeling both exhausted and curiously unrequited, and so Ohlsson gave two encores. The first, the “Poème” in F sharp major, Op.32, the second a frenzied etude. Both works, and all that had gone before, left one wondering intriguingly where Scriabin might have gone next compositionally had he lived longer.
Article first appeared in Bachtrack.com