About this Recording
8.573528 - SCRIABIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 2 - Allegro appassionato / Fantasie in B Minor / Impromptus (Soyeon Kate Lee)

Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915)
Piano Music • 2


Expressive beauty and refined originality are hallmarks of much of Scriabin’s keyboard music. In an article published in The Musical Times in 1940, Scriabin’s old colleague Leonid Sabaneev argued that these qualities entitle his smaller piano pieces to a permanent place in the musical repertory. He was confident that this would eventually happen and that Scriabin was destined for revaluation and revival. However, in order for this to take place, ‘a psychological change is required: the businesslike, prosaic, realistic atmosphere of our days must some day be illuminated by the fires of a reviving romanticism; we shall grow tired of being eternally sober and sceptical.’

This notion of musical sobriety was long central to the upbringing of many performers, but from time to time certain artists kicked against this received orthodoxy. One such musician was the great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who made a speciality of performing the works of Scriabin. He told the film maker Bruno Monsaingeon that ‘Scriabin isn’t the sort of composer whom you’d regard as your daily bread, but is a heavy liqueur on which you can get drunk periodically, a poetical drug…’ Scriabin’s short pieces are redolent of the scented salon and are very much like musical apéritifs or amuse-bouches. They stimulate one’s senses in ways similar to a chef expressing big ideas in small bites.

Although the young Scriabin was formally educated at a cadet school in Moscow, he realised that a military career was not for him. Leaving the army early was out of the question, but his passion for music was so great that he devoted himself to studying piano and composition in parallel with his officer training. His composition teachers included Sergey Taneyev, who suggested that Scriabin should take piano lessons from Nikolai Zverev. A studio photograph shows Zverev surrounded by his star pupils, including Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Scriabin, in the front row, is conspicuous for being the only student in a cadet’s uniform. Zverev was famous for hosting regular Sunday soirées, which were frequented by Moscow’s leading intellectuals. The musical entertainment was provided by Zverev’s favourite students, including ‘Scriabushka’, as Scriabin was affectionately named because of his diminutive stature. Scriabin used to perform music by his great heroes Schumann and Chopin at these events, but he also tried out his own latest compositions, including the charming Waltz in G sharp minor, which he wrote around 1886, when he was no more than fourteen.

The intimate nature of much of Scriabin’s early piano music was admirably suited to miniature genres such as the album leaf or feuillet d’album. Although slight in dimensions and generally simple in style, album leaves were popular with many nineteenth-century composers including Schubert, Schumann, Liszt and Grieg. Closer to home, Scriabin could draw on examples by Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein for his inspiration. Album leaves were often written with specific friends or patrons in mind, which was the case when Scriabin composed his Feuillet d’album de Monighetti, a beautiful Chopinesque miniature in A flat dating from 1889. The Monighetti family was of Swiss-Italian extraction, and the most famous member was the architect Ippolit Monighetti, who had designed several important buildings for the Romanovs. Scriabin returned periodically to writing album leaves, and two representative examples, dating from around 1904 and 1905, are the contemplative Feuillet d’album in F sharp and the Feuillet d’album in E flat, Op. 45, No. 1, which is the first number of a set of Trois Morceaux.

There is delicious irony in the fate of the Fugue in E minor, which Scriabin composed in 1891 or 1892, because in the conservatoires of Russia this work often features as a textbook example of ‘correct’ fugal writing, yet its very existence owes more to luck than judgement. Scriabin’s composition teacher, Anton Arensky, had set his students the task of writing ten fugues over the summer holidays of 1891. Rachmaninov fulfilled all Arensky’s requirements and passed with flying colours, but Scriabin failed because he only got round to writing this single example.

The relationship between an early un-numbered piano sonata in E flat minor and the Allegro appassionato, Op. 4, dating from about 1892, is fascinating. Although the two works differ considerably from a structural point of view, a distinct sense of overlap remains. During the three or four years separating them, Scriabin had tightened up his compositional style in the interests of good pianistic writing. In effect, he condensed his sonata into this single-movement freestanding Allegro appassionato. In outline, some of the thematic material partially survived the overhaul, but because Scriabin no longer felt bound by the traditional constraints of sonata form, he introduced a virtuosic section before the final coda.

Another miniature form at which Scriabin excelled in his youth was the impromptu, and he composed several short sets of these in the 1890s. The Impromptus, Op. 10 and Op. 14, dating from 1894 and 1895, demonstrate that the tonal language of his hero Chopin remained a clear inspiration. Nevertheless, with their occasional flashes of fire, they give a clear hint of the Russian darkness that was to become a hallmark of the mature composer.

In 1916, the year after Scriabin’s death, A. Eaglefield Hull published a detailed conspectus of Scriabin’s piano works in The Musical Quarterly. He wrote that they are works of ‘fancy, delight and beauty’ that every pianist should know. Of the Allegro de concert, Op. 18, he points out that it was composed at Vitznau on Lake Lucerne as a souvenir of happy times in the summer of 1896.

Throughout history there have been a surprising number of occasions when composers have failed to recognise their own music. This happened to Scriabin. One day he was busy in his Moscow flat, half listening to his friend Leonid Sabaneev playing the piano in the next room. He approved of the work’s brooding opening, melodic abundance and generally virtuosic style. After a while, curiosity got the better of him and he called out, ‘Who wrote that? It sounds a bit familiar.’ ‘It’s your Fantasy’, came the response. ‘What Fantasy?’ It was the Fantaisie in B minor, Op. 28, which Scriabin had composed several years earlier, around the turn of the century.

One of Scriabin’s strengths as a composer was his ability to create a multitude of moods. He did this to great success in his two sets of pieces, Op. 51 (1906) and Op. 56 (1908). Fragilité, Op. 51, No. 1, is a limpid tenor melody for the left hand accompanied by delicate chords in the piano’s upper register, while Danse languide, Op. 51, No. 4, suggests a close relationship with Le Poème de l’extase, Op. 54, Scriabin’s symphonic poem inspired by Theosophy. In Ironies, Op. 56, No. 2, Scriabin contrasts vivacity and amorousness, while in Nuances, Op. 56, No. 3, he calls on the musical style to be fondu and velouté (melting and velvety).

Anthony Short

Continuing the discovery of Scriabin’s lesser-known works, this album presents a mixture of some of his larger scale works, such as the ecstatic Fantaisie, Op. 28, and some of the smaller gems—brief, fleeting, and perfumed. This album is dedicated to the two greatest friends and anchors of my life: my sister, Soeun Lee, and my husband and invaluable musical companion, Ran Dank.

Soyeon Kate Lee

Close the window