A Magnificent and Varied Skryabin Centenary Recital from Garrick Ohlsson

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Skryabin: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Wigmore Hall London, 27.4.2015 (CS)


24 Preludes Op.11 – Prelude No.15 in D flat major
Piano Sonata No.1 in F Minor Op.6
2 Pieces Op.59 – II. Prélude
Piano Sonata No.8 in A minor Op.66
Piano Sonata No.9 in F major Op.68 (‘Black Mass’)
Piano Sonata No.3 in F sharp minor Op.23 (‘Etats d’âme’)
Piano Sonata No.10 in C major Op.70 (‘Trill’)


Messianic, mystic, megalomaniac: Aleksandr Skryabin (as his name was rendered in the programme book) was a man of strangeness and extremes, and his music – and the mystical philosophy which it embodies – invariably provokes strong reactions, from ecstatic acclaim to disdainful dismissal.  Presenting the second of two Wigmore Hall recitals devoted to Skryabin’s music for piano – on the 100th anniversary, to the day, of the composer’s death – American pianist Garrick Ohlsson revealed the process of growth from the early Chopin-influenced works to the one-movement sonatas of Skryabin’s later years which are paradoxically both concise and monumental.

Ohlsson’s technical facility was astonishing.  Indeed, he took the excessive demands which Skryabin makes of the pianist so casually in his stride that he might have been the embodiment of the composer’s own assertion, ‘I am nothing, I am play, I am freedom, I am life’, although there was nothing at all narcissistic or self-aggrandising about Ohlsson’s playing.  One might perhaps have wished for a stronger sense of turbulent interaction with the emotional uproar of the music.  But, instead of all-consuming fire, Ohlsson offered a more contained generative energy balanced by refinement and elusiveness, and in so doing, complementing his virtuosic achievements, the pianist conveyed a profound intellectual engagement with Skryabin’s musical arguments.  Glancing through the scores after the performance, I was stunned by the breath-taking complexity of the writing – which is often set out on three, or even four, staves; one can only imagine, and marvel at, the perspicacity required to commit this music to the memory of muscles and mind.

Ohlsson’s playing was notable for the wonderfully lucid voicing of even the most multifarious textures, the clarity of the trembling figurations, and the way that he spanned the enormous range of the phrases with effortless athleticism.  He demonstrated powerful muscularity without bombast in the explosive episodes, but was able immediately to quell such fury in passages of yearning lyricism.  One of the most impressive qualities of the pianist’s interpretation was his mastery of Skryabin’s plasticity of form which results in the volatile juxtaposition of unstable moods: here the unpredictable vacillations – as the utterances turned from ironic to elegiac in a breath – were supremely controlled.

We began quietly with the fifteenth Prelude of the Op.11 set, in which the calm, legato rocking thirds in the left hand were joined by a songful counter-melody in the right; the plaintive stillness Ohlsson evoked, tinged with modal inflection, was a reminder that the pianist first came to public attention when he became the first American winner of the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition in 1970.  There were echoes too of Brahms’s Op.118 Piano Pieces, and of Schumann, and such voices continued to resonate through the First Piano Sonata which dates from Skryabin’s student years in Moscow and which was completed in the summer of 1892, shortly after he had left the Conservatoire.

The sonata was the composer’s defiant response to an emotional crisis experienced at this time, when repetitive strain through over-use led a doctor to advise that he feared Skryabin would never recover from the injury to his right hand and arm.  The surging cry which erupts from the left hand in the opening bars sounded like a cry of anxiety and insolence; but after the ragings of the first movement, the second presented more tranquil reflections, the sighing chromaticisms imbued with sorrow.  The furious Presto, which accrued a climactic energy, was brusquely interrupted by the funeral march which acts as a sort of coda to the sonata.  The rising, dragging appoggiatura of the main theme, which is followed by a minor 7th leap and melancholy scalic fall, conveyed a Mahlerian pathos.

The somewhat oddly named ‘Prélude’ (it is the second of the Op.59 pair) was a wild petit morceau: a mini-maelstrom of jagged, stabbing falling fourths in the left hand and surging ripples, then pounding octaves, in the right, which served as an unsettling introduction to the emotional peaks of Sonatas 8 and 9.

Skryabin’s final three sonatas were all written in 1912-13.  The Eighth Sonata – which, along with the preceding ‘Prélude’, was the only work which Ohlsson did not perform from memory – requires enormous concentration and stamina.  Ohlsson made the brief melodic snatches and fragmented phrases adhere like the shifting beads in a kaleidoscope, reflected in endless permutations, coloured lights on tilting mirrors.  Debussy-esque waves of sound swelled sonorously, but the cascades were also airy and the glittering trills of the final episode had a dazzling luminosity.

The Ninth Sonata – christened the ‘Black Mass’ by Skyrabin’s fellow pianist, theosophist and friend, Alexey Podgaetskywas the highlight for me.  Even the most dissonant, twisted harmonies were made beautiful and the gradual transformation of the thematic material was articulately shaped into a cohesive whole.  The muted mists of the opening were wonderfully mysterious, as the rising melodic line culminated in a tentative murmuring motif.  This material was repeated, varied and developed with unwaveringly, direct communicative power as Ohlsson advanced through the ever- faster episodes, building tension towards the cathartic climax.  The whirling ‘satanic’ trills of the culminating march assumed an apocalyptic dynamism before a rapid diminuendo and dissolution left just a low bass tone, above which the return of the opening bars was at once both perplexing and consoling.

Ohlsson began the second half of the recital with the more conventional Third Sonata, a large-scale four-movement work written in the late 1890s.  His rendition captured both the heroic and the melancholy qualities of the work, and its evident thematic unity and restless movement fittingly anticipated the condensed intensity of the final work of the programme.

If in the Ninth Sonata Ohlsson penetrated the darkness, the Tenth was a radiant light-show.  The opening falling thirds were soft and pure, creating a sweet, ethereal mood; but this first Moderato episode closed with an inversion of the third and three vibrant trills, transforming this third-motif into a stirring procreative force.  Henceforth Ohlsson conjured a cosmic luminosity as trills of light and air – tremulous palpitations – rose to the highest registers.  All was radiant: moments of delicate refinement were challenged by grandiose outpourings.  The final sustained, pianissimo chord, spanning five and a half octaves, seemed to embrace all that we had heard that evening.

Two encores ensued: the soothing transparency of Poème Op.32 No.1 was followed by the frightening visions of the third of the three Op.65 Études.  It is impossible to know whether this music speaks of psychotic mental distress or is a fulfilment of Skryabin’s faith in the power of music and art to effect ecstatic spiritual transformation.  Either way Ohlsson had shown how, through the reiteration of fairly narrow musical means, Skryabin paradoxically found great contrasts, the early works illuminating the later.  The words of the composer himself seemed apposite: ‘I cannot understand how to write just music now.  How boring!  Music, surely, takes on idea and significance when it is linked to a single plan within a whole view of the world … The purpose of music is revelation.  What a powerful way of knowing it is!’[i]

Claire Seymour

[i] Cited in Faubion Bowers, The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers (St Martin’s Press, 1973), p.108.

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