SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 1 in f; Etude in c#; Sonata No. 2 (Sonata-Fantasy) in g#; Eight Etudes, op. 42; Sonata No. 3 in f#; Sonata No. 4 in F#; Sonata No. 5 in F# "Poem of Ecstasy"; Sonata No. 6; Désir, op. 57/1; Caresse dansée, op. 57/2; Sonata No. 7 "White Mass"; Sonata No. 8; Sonata No. 9 "Black Mass"; Sonata No. 10; Vers la flamme.
Ruth Laredo (piano)

Nonesuch 73035 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD)  TT: 154:23

I first met Scriabin's music through Horowitz's magnificent account of the Sonata No. 9. Later, a friend of mine learned the fourth sonata. I decided then and there that Scriabin was the man for me and bought Ruth Laredo's traversal of the sonatas on the Connoisseur Society label. From the CD liner notes, these readings were probably transferred from those Seventies' LPs.  The recordings established her as an eminent champion of Scriabin's piano music. However, she inspires as much awe when she plays Rachmaninoff and Ravel. For me, the late nineteenth century, particularly its piano music, comes filled with traps. The instrumental writing is usually fussier and more congested than I like, with filigree filigreed, and the emotions dangerously close to (and sometimes up to the eyeballs in) pure corn syrup. Laredo, besides an A-one set of fingers, is above all a performer of deep culture. In fact, her technique aside and the fact that she comes from Detroit, she reminds me of what I think of as a Great Mittel-Europa musician -- someone like Rudolf Serkin or Alexander Schneider -- someone who gives you not only the notes, but the cultural context of the notes. When she plays chamber music (I've heard her in Brahms), she invariably adds interpretive weight to the ensemble without obviously driving it. She's going to give a 25th-anniversary concert in New York at Alice Tully Hall September 13, 2001, and I'd give a lot to be there.

I must admit that as much as I like the piano music, Scriabin's orchestral music leaves me cold. It seems too scattered for me and too thickly scored, besides. I've never gone off the boil for his piano sonatas, however. Further, they seem to have influenced others throughout the century, including Prokofiev and Barber. In the later sonatas' use of "free dissonance," Scriabin anticipates such composers as late Debussy, Le Sacre Stravinsky, Bartók, and Schoenberg as well. As far as his personality goes, he was probably more than a little crazy (it's hard to tell affectation from genuinely nuts) or at least naive. However, musically he is "modern," before anybody else really knows what modern is or what to do with it.

The sonatas show Scriabin's musical development. He begins as a follower of Chopin. Indeed, one can tell the early Scriabin from Chopin only with great difficulty, which gives you some idea how well Scriabin worked this particular vein. The first sonata is very early indeed and here and there shows a student at work. Almost every theme begins with the same interval. Every movement is in the key of  f-minor. And yet it doesn't seem to matter. The composer's tremendous talent pushes these surface limitations into the background. Scriabin takes you to unexpected places within a Chopin musical landscape, and the limitations almost always occur as an afterthought. Faubion Bowers, Scriabin expert and writer of the liner notes, calls the sonata Lisztian, rather than Chopinesque, but I disagree. The music has a searching quality one associates more with Liszt than with Chopin, but the piano writing, the more classical structure, and the melos lie much closer to the latter. Ruth Laredo's own notes point out the similarities to the Chopin sonatas, especially Scriabin's "funeral march" finale in the first sonata. It's instructive, I think, to contrast Scriabin's piano writing with that of his contemporary (and fellow student) Rachmaninoff.  Rachmaninoff, it seems to me, really does approach the piano in the same way as Liszt -- essentially an orchestra in miniature, with tons of subsidiary lines and every finger touching and moving. In Scriabin's piano music, one hears "holes" in the texture. It is as notable for what it doesn't say as what it does, and this tendency shows itself from the earliest part of the composer's career.

The second sonata, in two movements, my least favorite of the ten, apparently caused Scriabin the most trouble. The tremendous first movement the composer meant to describe the sea on a summer night. The musical key to it is not the sea, but the night. Certain figurations (though not the harmonies) remind me of Debussy's early piano music and, again, the enormous figure of Chopin. Chopin may not have invented the piano nocturne, but I doubt these men knew much of John Field. Scriabin's first movement is Chopin pushed closer to an extreme of feeling (Chopin is just as notable for an almost-classical emotional restraint). The second movement, however, lets me down. It depicts a storm at sea. The rhythm is too stiff, too foursquare, and the musical images too second-hand, from around the middle of the century. Not even Laredo's considerable musicianship can save it from its own silliness -- a bit like listening to a purple poem recited by Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian.

By the third sonata, however, Scriabin has found his way again. It's the last he wrote in the traditional four movements. It opens magisterially, harmonically emphasizing 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths, but still within a context Chopin would have recognized. What is unusual, however, is the fastidiousness the composer has put into the spacing of his chords, perhaps the seed of his famous "mystic chord." I should also mention that although the sonata breaks into several movements, Scriabin concerns himself mightily with unity. The entire sonata seems to grow out of and to resolve the tensions of the opening. This is one of Laredo's great performances in the set. She both rides the storm and sings eloquently. Her phrasing in the lyrical sections is practically vocal: she makes the musical line breathe. Furthermore, she manages to convey the psychological unity of the work. Scriabin follows this particular star for the rest of his career, seen especially in the late one-movement sonatas.

In the two-movement fourth sonata, this unifying tendency becomes more apparent. The first movement, a harmonically and rhythmically unstable meditation closer to late Liszt than to Chopin, leads to a dance movement, harmonically very similar to such pieces as Debussy's slightly later "Danse (Tarentelle styrienne)" and Griffes's "Bacchanale." Yet both movements are simply different reflections of the same basic idea. Again, Laredo subtly pushes the similarities to a nearly-subliminal notice. The turns of thought are there for anyone who wants to follow them, but the narrative integrity of the sonata as a whole is also there. In many ways, Laredo pulls off the difficult illusion of "just singing."

I've blown hot and cold over the op. 42 etudes. Currently, I'm hot again. On the other hand, the op. 65 set satisfies me unconditionally. I love the weirdness of the later work. Nevertheless, op. 42 pulls off the difficult feat of being both real etudes and real music. Scriabin is a truly marvelous miniaturist (most of the etudes run less than two minutes). The ideas sound large, and yet Scriabin's treatment of each number satisfies you. I strongly suspect that Laredo's strong sense of proportion also helps bring these things off. My favorite etude is the gently bizarre third, which sounds like a fly trapped between a curtain and a window pane. I should say, however, that Laredo's account of the relatively well-known c#-minor etude (op. 2, no. 1) disappoints me as too matter-of-fact. I prefer Horowitz here.

The fifth sonata seems to refine and elaborate the quick movement of the fourth. Practically the entire sonata rises from a single idea, again very similar to the main theme of the fourth's finale. The fifth says what it has to say in one long movement which alternates between manic excitement and languor. Most writers consider it the first truly characteristic Scriabin sonata, where classical narration is overthrown by a succession of emotional states which melt into one another. In that sense, it represents a real break with the past and harmonically moves to the kind of dissonance one finds in the later Le Sacre and "barbarism" of the Teens and Twenties. Laredo makes the most of Scriabin's subtitle, "Poem of Ecstasy," and at times allows the ecstasy to ride all the way to hysteria. Taneyev, Scriabin's counterpoint teacher, told the composer, "I feel as if I've been beaten with sticks." Considering one of the sub-themes (sharply rapped-out chords), I know exactly what he means. The sonata's ending will take away your breath. It ends so suddenly, it's as if the music has suddenly fallen off a cliff.

In the sixth, Scriabin achieves a rhythmic fluidity not found even in Debussy. While not, strictly speaking atonal, the sonata emphasizes the constituent intervals of chords rather than harmony. Scriabin, according to Bowers, thought of it as a nightmare vision, a riot of monsters. Here, I prove myself no Scriabin disciple. The weakest part of his music is always, it seems to me, his pictorialism. The music simply doesn't jibe with his visionary explanations of it. A composer like Debussy or Griffes (or Wagner, for that matter) really does routinely capture dramatic movement. It's more a matter of shifting psychic states, and these Laredo catches admirably. Again, the sonata ends abruptly, but, as opposed to the fifth, not precipitously. A performer brings something like this off only with difficulty, with such basic questions as how long to linger, at what dynamic, and so on. Laredo finds a good solution, achieving an ending that seems to continue without us.

I'm less enamored of the two op. 57 pieces, miniatures of a hothouse eroticism that annoys me. The best I can say for them is that both together run less than three minutes. On the other hand, Laredo plays with great delicacy and refinement.

Scriabin called his seventh sonata the "White Mass" and thought of it as pure spirit, completely refined of gross flesh. Whether he succeeded can be debated, but I'm far more struck by the similarities to the "carnal" Scriabin pieces. To me, emotionally it's more of the same. Thus, its musical interest far exceeds its visionary interest. Most of the "harmonies" derive from the whole-tone scale, and as a consequence it shares Debussy's sound-world. But those devices serve a far different, far more extreme sensibility. Scriabin looks intently but exclusively within. It fascinates me to come across devices and procedures appropriated from his more conventional early work. Like the first sonata, for example, everything gets generated from an initial whole step (indeed, one of the contrasting themes of the seventh sonata comes note-for-note from the finale of the first), but Scriabin here rubs your nose in those two notes, worrying them and screwing up tension. It's almost like the elaborate windup of a pitcher before he releases the ball. Like the quick movement of the fourth sonata, the faster rhythms are the same basic, syncopated, triple-time figure.

With the Eighth, tonal stability breaks down further. It's as if Scriabin were carefully burning out not only the last spores of nineteenth-century harmony, but also the links to Debussy. Again, the musical narrative gets generated from the initial repetition of two notes a whole step apart. It differs from the Seventh in its relative relaxation. The mostly-slower progress of the work allows Scriabin to create a kind of heterophonic independence, with separate voices singing almost, but not quite, the same thing at slightly different times. This kind of writing tends to thicken things up, like a bubbling pea soup, but Laredo keeps the texture clear.

Scriabin did not come up with the subtitle of his ninth sonata, "Black Mass," on his own but accepted the suggestion of a friend. Music has fewer instances of a more unsettling seven minutes. This sonata consolidates all of Scriabin's modern tendencies to this point in a work whose power belies its short length. The edges are harder, the gestures more sharp. Scriabin doesn't break through to atonality, but he does seem to "free" harmony to such an extent that one feels any note can simultaneously sound with any other note. I know of no other piano work this stern until the Bartók sonata of 1926. In his recording (as I recall, from the late Forties), Horowitz played this as a contemporary work (Scriabin finished it in 1913). Indeed, the reading shares much of the electricity of his celebrated accounts of the Barber sonata and Prokofiev Seventh. It's nervous and has the danger of a high-wire act. Laredo's account differs in its perspective. She has plenty of power, but less of a sense of novelty. She plays it as if it were a classic. She has, I think, penetrated the musical workings of the score, shown especially in her crystalline presentation of a nearly-classical passage of imitative counterpoint. Horowitz flies through it at such a pace, I never realized the passage was imitative. Horowitz gives you a headlong rush. I enjoy a good headlong rush, but Laredo gives you something ultimately more interesting.

I admit that both the tenth sonata and "Vers la flamme" mystify me. Bowers sees them as new roads for the composer. The sound world is bit brighter, with more triadic chords. However, I have little emotional connection with it, and I hear as much of the old Scriabin as the new: characteristic thematic shapes (ultimately, I suspect, derived from Chopin and possibly Wagner's Tristan), the same rhetorical strategy of tension and release rather than a metrically-unfolding progress, and bits from earlier sonatas. I've been listening to them (though not constantly) for roughly thirty years, and perhaps I will break through one fine day. In the meantime, I wish I could tell you more.