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8.553070 - SCRIABIN: Etudes (Complete)

Alexander Scriabin (1872 - 1915)
Piano Études (Complete)

His mother was a pianist, his father a diplomat, and he, Alexander Nikolayvich Scriabin was Russia's most unusual composer. During his short life-span of 43 years, Scriabin wrote three symphonies, two symphonic poems, variations for a string quartet, a romance for French horn, a romance for voice, one piano concerto, and more than two hundred compositions for the piano.

Much has been said about Scriabin. Among the best compilations of biographical and bibliographical details are Scriabin by Faubion Bowers (Kodansha, 1969) and The Music of Alexander Scriabin by James M. Baker (Yale University Press, 1986).

The one single feature referred to by almost all writers is Scriabin's development as a composer; specifically, the alleged stylistic progression of his compositions from Chopinesque to Lisztian to Wagnerian. The possibility that a young musician's early compositions may show the influences of other composers is no surprise. In Scriabin's case, however, it is notable that even his earliest compositions display his own individualistic, unmistakable signature. His maturation as a composer is reflected in his continued attempts to use music to express titanic, sweeping emotions. Not merely thunder and lightning, not solely the cannon volleys of the march of war, not just the convulsions of seismic and volcanic nature, but the paroxysms of cosmic consciousness, the very nature of conflict within the human soul. In this respect, Scriabin was and still remains the most boldly original composer.

This bold originality is gloriously evident in his études. Scriabin composed twenty-six of these pieces. Worthy of their title and, in their demand for pianistic prowess, they stand along with those of Chopin and Liszt. Scriabin's Études span four creative periods. The first period is represented by the first Étude, Op.2 No.1, composed when Scriabin was fifteen. Indeed evocative of Chopin (perhaps of Chopin's Op.10, No.3), it is, nevertheless, a brooding, masterful piece that foreshadows Scriabin's genius. This study and his two pieces for left hand (Op.9) may be considered "model" compositions, perfect melodically and harmonically, entirely self-contained, and thematically complete: world-class output of a musical giant.

The second period includes the Twelve Études Op.8, composed by Scriabin in 1894. These are spirited, charged, turbulent pieces. The first of the set, Étude Op. 8, No.1 in C sharp major, is a torrent of triplets played first by the right hand, then by the left, and finally by both. The second, Étude in F sharp minor, a sophisticated cousin of Chopin's Prelude No.18, Op.28, has confrontation as its theme while the pianist faces the thorny problem of resolutely playing five-note sequences with the right hand against three note sequences with the left. Étude No.3, in B minor, is a tempest of clangor, in which single notes alternate with octaves, building up to two climaxes that fade unquietly. Étude No.4, in B major, brings again Scriabin's favourite figurations (of five notes in one hand against three in the other), with which he paints agreeable undulations of a zoetrope, or perhaps a genial (piacevole) schoolyard game of tag. The fifth of the Op.8 Études, in E major, is marked brioso, as Scriabin crossed out allegro from the original, searching for a sprightly, lively, but not rushed tempo; this, perhaps the second most performed and best known piece of this group, is a study in octaves requiring the right hand to swing back and forth between two contiguous ranges, initially in pairs and concluding in triplets. Étude No.6, in A major, is a willowy study in sixths, a tone-picture of sylph like cavorting in a lush meadow. Étude No.7, in B-fiat minor, marked presto, tenebroso, agitato, is a sinister chariot ride across the dried-out bed of the river Styx; it reveals Scriabin's early flirting with the dark commotions that would be embodied in his later compositions. The Étude No.8, in A flat major, is really an album-leaf or a nocturne, a "mourning after" that is a fitting quietus to its predecessor. The Étude No.9, in G sharp minor, is the longest Op.8 composition; it is a ballad in which persistent but underpowered glimmers of hope trumpet their constant struggle with entrenched and ubiquitous agents of despair, a struggle that ends in more than a stalemate but less than a victory. Étude No.10, in D fiat major, is a chromatic kaleidoscope of right-hand double notes (mostly thirds) accompanied by broad-ranging bass notes, with much staccato and occasional six against five figurations; this Étude is a true "exercise", requiring bravura technique. The next Étude, Op.8, No.11, in B flat minor, the grown-up heir of Scriabin's first Étude Op.2, No.1, has a lugubrious, Tchaikovskyan undertaste. The twelfth and last of the Op.8 Études, Étude No.12 in D sharp minor, marked patetico is probably Scriabin's most famous and frequently performed piano piece. It was a favourite encore of great pianists of the first half of the twentieth century. Op.8 No.12 is to Scriabin what Op.10, No.12 is to Chopin: a tremorous, affecting, "revolutionary" étude, a defiant march that is also an elegy of sorrow.

Scriabin's third period is exemplified here by his Eight Études, Op.42. Almost a decade after the Op.8, these compositions reach diverse nuances of depth and intricacy. They are both blithe and mysterious, extraordinary recipes for passion and rest. Scriabin begins his definition of complexity with Étude No.1, in D flat major, a brilliant and notoriously slippery exercise (nine notes in the right hand against five in the left) of velocity and nonchalance, of randomness and design, of fate and surprise. Étude No.2, in F sharp minor, is a miniature that could have been a prelude; its obstinate, whimpering left-hand theme squirms in the shadows of the simple and proud right-hand melody. Étude No.3, also in F sharp minor, another miniature, is an arabesque, a very fast, very hushed quaver. The Étude No.4, in F sharp major, is a placid respite, a brief moment of serenity, like Monet's lily pond, that Scriabin daintily paints for us with notes. Étude No.5, in C sharp minor, is the most famous of the Op.42 eight. Here Scriabin's canvas is galactic and his strokes are colossal. The cosmic ship is buffeted by giant breakers, waves that boom and bellow with primal authority. The ship's journey is rebellious and daring, its destiny and destination uncertain. This rousing, climactic étude is for us a vicarious ride in Scriabin's Promethean theme park. The last three of the Op.42 Études are snap-shots of repose: the Étude No.6, in D flat major, a subdued exaltation of muted bells amid the rustle of a somnolescent valley; Étude No.7, in F minor, a wistful merry-go-round, a clowning achievement; and the last of the set, Étude No.8 in E flat major, fretting ripples reticently coalescing into a vexing stillness.

Scriabin's fourth period is illustrated by his last five études. The Étude Op.49, No.1 in E flat major is a brisk frolic, a sequence of leap-frogging two-note sprinkles. His Étude Op.56, No.4, is a shimmering blur of right-hand triplets accompanied by awesome, unbroken major tenth chords in the left, a flash in the woods. Finally, in the three Études Op.65, composed in 1908, Scriabin unveils for us the beginnings of an esoteric paradigm, a convergence of ideas that had been germinating in him throughout his life. Contemplative, sombre, indecisive sentiments hover over spartan, terse, bashful melodies. Étude Op.65, No.1, in B flat major is a punishing workout, requiring the right hand to hammer out chromatic scales of major ninths. Étude Op.65, No.2, in C sharp major, is a nostalgic, gentle breeze of sevenths; as he often did, or could not help but do, Scriabin divulges his perennial, youthful, sensual yearnings, returning to his old, meditative haunts, wringing these vague feelings again and again. The last Étude, Op.65, No.3, in G major, in fifths and octaves, is shivery, brittle, arrogant, and frail, the quintessence of Scriabin's concept of the tempest and delicacy of life.

© 1997 George Ledin Jr.

Alexander Paley
Born in Kishinev, in Moldavia, in 1956, Alexander Paley had his first musical training in his native town, where he attended the School of Music, giving his first concert when he was thirteen and three years later winning the Moldavian National Music Competition. He later studied at the Moscow Conservatory, where his teachers included Bella Davidovich and Vera Gornstayeva, completing his course there in 1981. His subsequent concert career took him to major musical centres throughout Eastern Europe, and in France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Spain, with distinguished awards in important international competitions. In 1988 he emigrated to the United States and with a repertoire of some thirty concertos and solo piano works ranging from Scarlatti to Bartók has continued his international career, now winning the highest acclaim also from American critics.

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