Yesterday afternoon the Old First Concerts recital series at Old First Church concluded its festival of four programs, prepared and curated by Daniel Glover, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Alexander Scriabin in 1915. The final program provided an excellent conclusion by reviewing the three basic periods of Scriabin’s creative life as a composer, given a useful summary by the author of his Wikipedia page. The first of the periods reflects the strong influence of Frédéric Chopin, particularly evident in his Opus 11 set of 24 preludes, which was performed this past Friday night. The second period marks his increasing use of chromaticism in search of new approaches to dissonance. By the time of the third period, Scriabin had dispensed with the use of a key signature and was exploring the use of new chords without entirely abandoning the need for harmonic progression. This last period overlaps Arnold Schonberg’s initial experiments with “free atonality;” but Schoenberg’s intention was to give up the need for a tonal center and with it any structural function of harmonic progression.
The pianists for yesterday’s recital were, in order of appearance, Owen Zhou, Brent Smith, Brett Waxdeck, Chris Haight, and Dmitry Rachmanov. Zhou began the program with one of Scriabin’s most explicit acknowledgements of Chopin’s influence, his unpublished (WoO 6) “sonata-fantasy” in G-sharp minor. Scriabin was only fourteen when he wrote this in 1886, and one can appreciate his decision to leave it unpublished. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the extent to which Scriabin understood Chopin’s logic for sonata-form movements.
It remained for Waxdeck to pick up on Scriabin’s efforts to seek out his own voice during that first period. He did this through a series of six études, beginning with the first one Scriabin published, the first of the three pieces in his 1887 Opus 2 collection. The remaining selections came from the Opus 8 collection of études published in 1894. The Opus 2 étude is structured around progressions of thick chords; and the “object of study” appears to be the skill of bringing out the melodic lines of inner voices in the midst of such thick textures. (In the example illustrated above, this is most evident when he adds sixteenth notes to the eighth-note pulse that dominates the entire étude.)
However, the étude also demonstrates Scriabin’s inquiring mind on the subject of tonality, since the key signature changes three times (but, fortunately, ends where it began). The Opus 8 études, on the other hand, followed Chopin’s lead by devoting each to the cultivation of a specific technical skill. These skills were not stated explicitly in the score, but they were suitably outlined by Waxdeck’s notes for the program booklet.
Waxdeck also included three études from the second period, taken from the 1903 Opus 42 collection of eight. One could appreciate Scriabin’s pursuit of chromaticism through the keys of these études, two in F-sharp major and one in C-sharp minor. However, it was through the selections provided by Smith that one could appreciate Scriabin’s growing interest in the ambiguities induced by the exploration of new forms of dissonance. This was most evident in the 1906 Opus 52 collection of three pieces, the second of which was explicitly titled “Enigme.” Through Smith’s selections, which included two earlier pieces from 1903, the Opus 41 “poème” and the Opus 34 “poème tragique,” one could appreciate that transitional nature of this period.
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Scriabin’s third period. This included two sonatas, the eighth (Opus 66 played by Zhou) and tenth (Opus 70 played by Rachmanov), the Opus 74 set of five preludes, composed in 1914 and played by Haight, and Rachmanov concluding the concert with one of Scriabin’s last works, the Opus 72 poème, which he entitled “Vers la flamme” (toward the flame). The two sonatas and the Opus 72 poème are all extended works; but, ultimately, the greatest impact came from the five preludes, each characterized by a vividly descriptive phrase and each haiku-like in its distillation of that phrase to the shortest conceivable duration. The fact is that, while Scriabin put considerable thought into his large structures as he wrestled with broader questions of progression, his rhetoric was at its most powerful in his miniatures; and it is worth nothing that 1914 is also the year of Anton Webern’s Opus 11, his set of three “little pieces” for cello and piano.
Once again, yesterday’s performances were consistently satisfying. Perhaps what was most important was that each pianist performed with not only a focus on the score but also a sense of where that score fit into the larger context of the development of Scriabin’s thinking. If there were certain clouds of struggle in the longer pieces, than the struggle had as much to do with Scriabin as with the pianist who had chosen to play that composition.