Last week’s article about pianist Alessio Bax’ planned appearances in the United States for the 2015–16 season also mentioned that Signum Classics would be releasing his latest CD next month. The release date of September 11 applies only to the physical version. For those who prefer digital downloads, the iTunes Store released the album yesterday. It presents an all-Russian program coupling Alexander Scriabin to Modest Mussorgsky (in that order of performance). Each composer is represented by one major work and one or more shorter selections.
The principal Scriabin selection, which begins the track list, is the Opus 23 (third) piano sonata in F-sharp major. In the Scriabin canon this counts as an “early” sonata, meaning that it is one of the first five sonatas that uses key signatures. (The fifth sonata, Opus 53, is not listed as having a key; but this is because the key signature keeps changing as the single-movement composition progresses.) It is also the closest that Scriabin got to the traditional four-movement architecture. However, only the last movement has a (relatively) easily recognizable recapitulation. The third movement is an Andante, but it serves more to introduce that final movement. Only the second Allegretto movement can be called retrospective and may well be as close to a scherzo as Scriabin ever got.
Considering the durations of the “late” sonatas, the movements of Opus 23 are of a relatively “digestible” scale. Scriabin composed this sonata between 1897 and 1898; and, in many respects, it prepares the attentive listener for the more exploratory nature of those last five sonatas. Scriabin had already been cultivating a rhetoric of uneasy restlessness in his earlier compositions, and that quality can be appreciated in his shorter compositions. It might be fair to say that Opus 23 is Janus-faced, looking back on past conventions and the composer’s “fledgling” efforts while at the same time laying the groundwork for the works that would unfold as Scriabin entered the twentieth century. Bax gives this sonata a straightforward reading, respecting the score as it was published; and the result does much to prepare the curious listener for Scriabin’s later efforts.
The sonata is followed by two of those early short pieces. The first of these is the C-sharp minor étude that begins Scriabin’s Opus 2 collection (three short pieces in all). Bax then stays in C-sharp minor for the prelude that begins the two Opus 9 compositions of pieces to be played by the left hand alone. (Note: This is how the album was described last week, and it is the correct description. The back cover of the album erroneously states that both Opus 9 pieces are being performed, which would be quite a trick for a track that is less than three minutes in duration!) In both of these pieces, Bax is true to Scriabin’s attention divided between keyboard technique and expressive performance in equal measure. It would be interesting to listen to how he would approach the Opus 11 cycle of 24 preludes covering all of the major and minor keys with its wide diversity of rhetorical stances.
The major Mussorgsky composition is the original piano version of the Pictures at an Exhibition suite. Bax gives this a well-disciplined reading. However, when one listens to this music after the Scriabin selections, it is hard to avoid wondering if he has been too disciplined about this music. This is not to suggest that a pianist should try to channel Mussorgsky’s alcoholism when playing this music any more than one should take up theosophy before trying to play Scriabin. Nevertheless, the “pictures” themselves were by Viktor Hartmann, a close friend of Mussorgsky’s, who had recently died. One should thus entertain the possibility that this music has a memorial quality, using the selection of pictures to recall the different personality traits of the artist’s character. From such a point of view, Bax’ reading may be taken as too straightforward for either Hartmann’s conceptions or Mussorgsky’s personal demons.
A bit more interesting is Bax’ own reworking of Konstantin Chernov’s piano arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” originally published early in the twentieth century. This track almost makes for an ideal summing-up of the entire album, since it offers a possible “synthesis” of the restless natures of both Mussorgsky and Scriabin. Writing as one unacquainted with Chernov’s arrangement, I am not prepared to discuss just what it was that Bax added to the mix. However, there is a level of excitement in this performance that never manages to rear its head during the Pictures performance. Bax may have made the arrangement because he felt that he needed a strong encore piece for his recitals, but this is music that can stand up to inclusion in the recital program itself.