For his eighth appearance on the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts series in Ashburnham on Sunday, Dmitry Rachmanov, who is a Russian native, graduate of Juilliard with a DMA from the Manhattan School of Music, Professor of Piano and Chair of Keyboard Studies at California State University, Northridge, and co-founder of the Scriabin Society of America, closed the 29th season with a program of piano works of Alexander Scriabin. For the first half, after sets of three Preludes: Op. 13, No. 1 in C Major, Op. 11, No. 2 in A Minor, and Op. 15, No. 1 in A Major; and three Etudes from Op. 8: Nos 2 in F-sharp Minor, 4 in B Major, and 9 in G-sharp Minor, he played two sonatas, Nos 2 in G-sharp Minor, and 4 in F-sharp Major, separated by Deux Poèmes, Op. 32. All but this work and the fourth sonata were composed in the last decade and a half of the 19th century. Those two works and all of those on the second half date from the first decade and a half of the 20th, the last 15 years of his all-too-short life (1872-1915). The second half opened with Sonata No. 9 in F Major, Op. 68, called the “Black Mass,” and closed with Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp Major, Op. 53, surrounding Deux Morceaux, Op. 59, the second of his Five Préludes, Op. 74, and the third of his Three Etudes, Op. 65, in fifths.
Scriabin began his compositional life at the age of 11, having only had his first formal music lesson the year before, adoring Chopin and writing in the late Romantic style of the times, but around the turn of the century he became a symbolist and an experimentalist, quite avant-garde, employing dramatic changes in rhythms, which can seem disconnected or disjointed, and unusual harmonies, and even some dissonance, in the style of the Second Viennese School composers like Arnold Schoenberg, and an occasional touch of jazz. This turn-of-the century period is sometimes referred to as the “Silver Age.” Rachmanov’s CD that includes many of the works in this program bears an apt title: A Scriabin Odyssey; from Romantic to Mystic.
Scriabin was also a synesthete, associating specific colors with specific musical notes and keys, although he was careful not to admit it. This did not manifest itself as obviously in his piano music as it did in some of the orchestral works, with his 1910 Prometheus; The Poem of Fire, Op. 60, being the most developed and famous example: it involved colored lighting projected onto long vertical white fabric banners suspended from the proscenium when it was performed in Carnegie Hall in 1915. (Readers interested in this subject can find my article about it, “The Color of Sound/The Sound of Color,” here.) Color is everywhere in this music, however, both in the early Romantic- and later Modern-style works. It is also evident in the tempo markings, in Italian in the early works and French in the later ones. For example, the second of the Deux Poèmes is marked: Allegro, con eleganzia, con fiducia (= with confidence), and the second movement of the fourth Sonata is marked: Prestissimo volando (= flying), which the pianist’s fingers are surely doing. Sonata No. 5 from 1907 in a single movement is marked: Allegro, impetuoso, con stravaganza – Languido – Accarezzevole – Presto con allegrezza – Allegro fantastico – Presto tumultuoso esaltato (= exalted) – Allegro impetuoso – Languido – Legerissimo volando, accelerando – Allegro fantastico – Allegro – Prestissimo – Presto. Examine the punctuation to determine the divisions of the sections, envision the enormous shifts in tempo, and imagine the coloristic effects demanded. This almost overwhelms the senses of the listener. By No. 9 in 1912-13, Scriabin had calmed back down a bit: Moderato quasi andante – Molto meno vivo – Allegro – Piú vivo – Allegro molto – Alla Marcia – Piú vivo – Presto, but there is still a wide variety. This work, as its nickname reveals, is darker and slower overall. The 1910 Deux morceaux are marked: Poème Allegretto, avec grace et douceur (= sweetness) – Ad libitum, and Prélude Sauvage, belliqueux (= belligerent, warlike) – Avec défi (= With defiance), respectively.
Rachmanov wisely chose to play the program on the Collection’s 1877 Érard extra-grand modèle de concert. Dating from the first year the model was produced, it remained in production, albeit not in large quantities, since it was the largest model the firm ever made, until the late 1920s. While Scriabin most likely owned a Bechstein (Berlin), or perhaps a Blüthner (Leipzig), since those were the makes most popular in the Russia of his time, and found in the Moscow conservatories, he was familiar with Érards from his numerous visits to Paris, from about 1895 until his death, to play concerts, including at least one in 1905 in the firm’s own concert hall, the Salle Érard. You can read more about the instrument and the firm in an earlier review [here]. Its varied colors across the diverse registers suited the music perfectly and Rachmanov handled it with extraordinary agility and finesse. The 1893 Érard used last week, though a ‘salon’ grand, would also have worked well.
Pianists have little hesitation to offer recitals devoted solely to the works of a single major composer, but only a very few dare to do so for Scriabin; I had never before heard one. His music is very varied and very demanding, not only of the pianist, but also of the audience, which is faced with an overload of auditory sensations of so many different types. Rarer still is the pianist who can pull this off with such impressive precision and passion as did Rachmanov, literally “blowing away” his listeners, even the uninitiated ones and perhaps some who were predisposed to be antipathetic. He rewarded the prolonged standing ovation with two short works: Feuillet d’Album, Op. 45, No. 1, and what is perhaps the composer’s most famous piano piece, the Etude in D-sharp Minor, Op. 8, No. 12.