Milton Moore: The mysticism, melody and madness of Scriabin

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If you attend a recital by a Russian pianist, you'll probably hear some Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Liszt, Chopin and Scriabin.

Scriabin? Who?

If you're Russian, you know who.

Russian pianists seem to favor probing music full of emotion, spiced with bombast and laced with virtuosic flash. Few composers can rival Alexander Scriabin in those departments. His music is compressed and extreme … and, to my ears, extremely appealing.

Scriabin was immensely important in his day (he wrote his most lasting music in the 1890s), but after his death, he quickly fell out of favor. His personal weirdness colored opinions of him – medical details aside, he was pretty crazy, wrapped up in all sorts of mysticism and theosophy and quack theories about color and tonality. One of the greatest of Russian pianists, Vladimir Horowitz (no slouch himself in the weirdness department), did a lot to bring Scriabin back into focus after World War II.

Many listeners and performers considered Scriabin excessive, even diabolical, and much of his late music is pretty unhinged. But at his best, and his solo piano music is his best, Scriabin stands as a collision between 19th century Romanticism and the new harmonic languages of the 20th century. And even his biggest piano pieces, his sonatas, are very short … shorter than a single movement of most Schubert sonatas. His vast output for the piano has established itself as a bedrock of the repertoire – for Russians at least!

I had the pleasure last month of seeing Russian superstar Evgeny Kissin perform Scriabin at a Carnegie Hall recital so sold-out that about 100 folding chairs were set up on the stage. But I love this set of his complete piano works by Latvian-born, St. Petersburg-trained Maria Lettberg.

Here are some of good entries into Scriabin's world:

First, a sampling of three of his short pieces, starting with the first of his Three Pieces, Opus 2, an elegant songlike homage to Chopin …

Next, from his set of eight etudes, his Opus 8, the pure drama of the last of them, No. 12 in D Sharp Minor …

And a taste of the harmonic language that he developed from one of his later works, from his Opus 74 Preludes, marked "indecisive," it drifts and drifts …

This is my favorite of Scriabin's sonatas, No. 10 in C Major, Opus 7. It has a mystical opening with a stormy central section. In true sonata form, there is a recapitulation, and it ends in the misty twilight where it awoke.

And Sonata No. 5 in F Sharp Minor is absolutely in character. A forceful opening, immediately cut short by an atmospheric nocturne, clearly announces the musical journey ahead, Through some jaunty dances, some mysticism and much drama, it works out to a grand conclusion … that never arrives.

Scriabin isn't for all tastes, but these piano pieces work for me.

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