Over the course of this past season, the Old First Concerts recital series at Old First Church planned a series of four programs to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Alexander Scriabin in 1915. Last night the third of those programs was presented; and it will be followed by the final program this Sunday afternoon (August 16 at 4 p.m.). Five pianists participated in a survey of Scriabin’s solo piano compositions written both early and late in his life. In the order of their appearance, those pianists were John Boyajy, Tien Hsieh, Dmitry Rachmanov, Brent Smith, and Daniel Glover. Rachmanov also provided the notes for the program book.
The first adjective Rachmanov used in those notes was “visionary,” which has almost come to stick to Scriabin like a tired cliché. It would be more accurate to say that Scriabin’s intellect took in a wide variety of different directions, some (like his interests in synesthesia and theosophy) far less orthodox than others, particularly among musicians. All those interests influenced his work, although it would be fair to say that many were far less influential than others.
Like any pianist born near the end of the nineteenth century (1872), Scriabin numbered Frédéric Chopin among his interests and influences. His Opus 11 set of 24 preludes, which opened last night’s program, clearly took Chopin’s Opus 28 preludes as a point of departure, not only for its circle-of-fifths traversal of the major and minor keys but also for the miniature scale of each individual prelude. Like Chopin, Scriabin developed a skilled capacity for distilling intense expressiveness down into a moment so short as to be almost fleeting.
As he grew older, however, Scriabin became occupied with a desire to move beyond the conventions of harmony that had satisfied his predecessors for a good two centuries. This required him to confront problems of organization on a longer durational scale, and his ten published sonatas might be taken as a roadmap for how his thoughts progressed. Most interesting is that, in the last five of these sonatas, all written in the relatively short period between 1911 and 1913, Scriabin dispensed with the use of a key signature in a quest for new chords and, even more importantly, new approaches to harmonic progression.
In this respect he is often compared with Arnold Schoenberg as a pioneer of atonality. However, Schoenberg was trying to get beyond harmonic progression itself as a structural foundation for a piece of music. As Donald Francis Tovey observed in the “Harmony” entry for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Scriabin could never abandon that structural function of harmony:
Scriabin, each of whose last five sonatas is built around its own new chord, complained shortly before his untimely death that he had, after all, not succeeded in getting away from a sophisticated dominant seventh.
Where he did succeed was in applying his capacity for distillation to the reduction of themes to little more than motivic fragments, which he could then permute and combine through processes of sequencing and overlay into large structural elements expressed more through the textures of thick counterpoint than through the sonorities of “new” chords.
The second half of last night’s program focused on three of these sonatas, the sixth (Opus 62), seventh (Opus 64, “White Mass”), and ninth (Opus 68, “Black Mass”). These were performed by Smith, Rachmanov, and Glover, respectively. Each distinguished itself through a rhetoric that could almost be taken as improvisatory. Indeed, the very capacity for improvising with such rich textures, even if they emerged from the simplest of motifs, may well have inspired some of the most adventurous pianists that would follow Scriabin, not only Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev but also Olivier Messiaen and, here in the United States, the almost frightening prodigiously extended improvisations of Cecil Taylor.
Are there religious connotations when titles like “White Mass” and “Black Mass” (and, for that matter, the much earlier Opus 36 “Poème Satanique,” composed in 1903, which concluded the first half of the program) are applied? Certainly Opus 64 is distinguished for its more frequent use of chords, rather than just melodic motifs. As is the case in many of Messiaen’s piano pieces, there is a suggestion of a choir; but the sounds are too other-worldly for that choir to be an earthly one. On the other hand the satanic allusions seem to have more to do with dark rhetorical devices, such as intense dynamics that require a percussive approach to keyboard technique, anticipating stylistic features later encountered in Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Of greater significance is the generally unsettling qualities of this music, due more to its possibly emerging from improvisation than to a religious perspective.
The program began with the full set of Opus 11 preludes, divided between Boyajy and Hsieh. These were composed between 1888 and 1896, and they were not composed in the circle-of-fifths order in which they were published. Rachmanov’s notes observe that many of these can be taken as “musical postcards,” reflecting impressions of the many cities that Scriabin visited during his travels at that time. If the late sonatas are improvisatory in nature, then the preludes capture the spontaneity of a Japanese poet conceiving a haiku. Hsieh did an excellent job of evoking that spirit of spontaneity through her performance of the last twelve of these preludes. Boyajy, on the other hand, played his opening portion as if he were reading it for the first time. He seemed so obsessed with every note on the printed page that any sense of each prelude distilling a single gesture was lost entirely. Fortunately, he was the only one of the five pianists who never quite got into the spirit of things; and the remaining pianists more than compensated for that opening disappointment.