Garrick Ohlsson Marks the Scriabin Centenary  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scriabin: Garrick Ohlsson (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.1.2015 (MB)


Prelude in A minor, op.11 no.2
Piano Sonata no.2 in G-sharp minor, op.19
Étude in B-flat minor, op.8 no.11
Étude in D-flat major, op.8 no.10
Piano Sonata no.4 in F-sharp major, op.30
Piano Sonata no.7 in F-sharp major, op.64, ‘White Mass’
Désir, op.57 no.1
Piano Sonata no.6 in G major, op.62
Étude in D-flat major, op.42 no.1
Étude in C-sharp major, op.42 no.5
Fragilité, op.51 no.1
Piano Sonata no.5 in F-sharp major, op.53

2015 is the centenary of Scriabin’s death; Twelfth Night, on which this Wigmore Hall recital took place, was also his birthday. There could be little gainsaying Garrick Ohlsson’s achievement in the performance of these piano works, but I am afraid I was less than convinced of their stature as a whole; the White Mass Sonata was certainly the highlight for me. It is perhaps a cheap point to say that Scriabin’s downright ludicrous ambitions were never achieved; how could they be? Take the never-finished – how could it have been? – Mysterium, which in the words of Geoffrey Norris’s programme note, ‘was to start with bells hung from clouds over the Himalayas and to end with the dawn of humanity on a higher plane of enlightenment’. I am not sure, however, that many of the piano pieces even successfully fulfil more modest expectations. That surprised me, given a remark I recalled from Pierre Boulez, who said, when conducting some of Scriabin’s music, that he found the piano music more interesting. I suppose it depends which piano music; at its best, I should agree, but otherwise, I should unhesitatingly prefer to hear The Poem of Ecstasy.

The opening Prelude in A minor was promising enough, Chopin’s example strong in both work and Ohlsson’s performance. (Throughout, I was reminded of his experience as a Chopin pianist.) The Second Sonata – I find it difficult to understand in what sense any of the pieces called ‘sonata’ have anything much to do with sonata principles – offered admirably delicate playing, but proved one of the works at which I found myself most at a loss as to what it amounted to in compositional terms. I wondered whether Ohlsson might have made more of the contrast between the two movements, but am perfectly willing to allow that any fault may have lain with the work itself. Of the two following Études, the D-flat major work offered welcome brightness of contrast, amidst the minor-ish mode meandering previously heard. But it was with the F-sharp major Sonata (no.4), that we encountered what was, at least to my ears, a more interesting work, – much more interesting. Salon aspects seemed to have disappeared from Scriabin’s writings, and the melodic material sounded far more appropriate to the harmonies. It would be difficult, though, to argue that, even as a short ‘sonata’, it lacked longueurs. The White Mass Sonata, which concluded the first half, offered a more succinct example of Scriabin’s ‘ecstatic’ style, the weird would-be apotheosis of its conclusion a challenge both in work and in performance.

Désir, with which the second half opened, offered attractive, post-Tristan harmonies, seeming to hint at the Poem of Ecstasy, whilst retaining the welcome virtue of smaller form and genre. The impression Ohlsson gave was of something not wholly unlike late Liszt. His programming here made a great deal of sense, the Sixth Sonata seeming to grow out of its melodies and harmonies, although the sonata undoubtedly voiced darker moods. Ohlsson retained the somewhat paradoxical improvisatory quality the music appears to demand, or at least to encourage. That said, I found the piece again rather outstayed its welcome. The D-flat major Étude sounded more like an Étude than its predecessors. Once again, the point of departure in Chopin was readily discernible. Likewise the C-sharp minor Étude which followed, the twist of tonality a welcome feature. Fragilité rehashes the harmonies of Désir a little too obviously for my liking, but Ohlsson certainly rehashed them well. Finally, there came the Fifth Sonata (and three Scriabin encores!) Perhaps I was just too tired of Scriabin by then, but I struggled to discern the work’s form, and I have no reason to think that was owed to the performance. Might the composer perhaps have benefited from an editor?

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment