Scriabin Complete Piano Sonatas
Scriabin was an ambitious composer. A romantic alchemist, he saw his music as a transmuting agent. Through its influence pain would become happiness and hate become love, culminating in a phoenix-like rebirth of the universe. With Shakespearian agility he would change the world’s dross into “something rich and strange”.
Not surprisingly, given Scriabin’s early prowess as a pianist, the ten sonatas resonate with every exoticism, ranging through the First Sonata’s cries of despair (complete with magnificent Russian funeral march), to the Second Sonata’s Baltic Sea inspiration, the Third Sonata’s “states of being”, the “flight to a distant star” (No. 4) and “the emergence of mysterious forces” (No. 5). Nos. 7 and 9 are White and Black Mass Sonatas respectively, and the final sonatas blaze with trills symbolizing an extra-terrestrial joy and incandescence.
Even less surprisingly such music makes ferocious demands on the pianist’s physical stamina and imaginative resource. However, Marc-Andre Hamelin, a cool customer, takes everything in his stride. Blessed with rapier reflexes he nonchalantly resolves even the most outlandish difficulties. He launches the First Sonata’s opening outcry like some gleaming trajectory and, throughout, his whistle-stop virtuosity is seemingly infallible.
What I missed, however, was a greater sense of the music’s Slavonic intensity, its colour and character; a finer awareness, for example, of the delirious poetry at the heart of the Second Sonata’s whirling finale. Hamelin’s sonority is most elegantly and precisely gauged but time and again his fluency (admittedly breathtaking) erases too much of the work’s originality and regenerative force (the qualities that caused Stravinsky to exclaim in wonder, “Scriabin... where does he come from; and who are his forebears?”). Confronted by music above and beyond a vortex of notes he has too little to say. However, he shows a greater sense of freedom in the Fifth Sonata, and in the opalescent fantasy of the later sonatas, he responds with more evocative skill to subjective terms such as aile, souffle mysterieux or onde caressante, as well as to moments where Scriabin’s brooding introspection is lit by sudden flashes of summer lightning. Yet even here I missed a greater sense of Angst, of some of Ashkenazy’s romantic volatility in his set of the sonatas, for a touch of Horowitz’s cunning and diablerie (in Sonatas Nos. 3, 5 and 9). Nor should readers forget Pogorelich or Demidenko in No. 2, Gavrilov in No. 4 (EMI, 10//84 – nla) or Richter in No. 5. Gordon Fergus-Thompson’s slowly progressing complete Scriabin series for ASV, too, while hardly showing Hamelin’s razor-sharp command, is altogether more personal and involving. Hyperion’s recordings are a little tight and airless in the bass and middle register, but their two-disc set is beautifully presented and includes a superb essay on Scriabin by Simon Nicholls.'