The Piano Sonatas of Scriabin: Laredo Returns. Additional selections played by Gavrilov.

by Walter Simmons

With the exception of Beethoven’s 32, probably no other cycle of piano sonatas captures and distills the metamorphosis of a brilliantly original, psychologically unique, and consistently engrossing musical world-view as successfully as do Scriabin’s 10. These sonatas chronicle the composer’s spiritual odyssey and the psychic realms he charted, moving gradually from the conventional world toward an ever more rarefied personal vision. Spanning a period of only about 20 years (straddling the year 1900), the sonatas begin by fully embracing the Romantic piano language of Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, while imbuing it with features of Scriabin’s own personality—in particular, a languid sensuality and breathless impetuosity that join in reaching toward the ecstatic. As time passed, his works shed their conventional syntax, moving through a less symmetrical, idiosyncratically Wagnerian opulence, in search of formal structures purer and more organically wedded to the ideas and feelings that consumed him. By the time of his death at age 43, Scriabin had arrived at a virtually atonal language of twittering trills, spasmodic pulsations, and brittle sound fragments that conjure an almost Strindbergian nightmare world of demonic spells, ghostly processions, and other febrile hallucinations.

Scriabin’s blatantly delirious revelry can easily be misunderstood as the incoherent effluence of uncontrolled egoism. Yet the genius of Scriabin lies in the clarity with which this spiritual metamorphosis is documented. While acknowledging that not all the sonatas reach quite the same high level of achievement, one is consistently struck by their lucid, well-integrated formal designs, by their comprehensive exploitation of the contrapuntal, textural, and timbral possibilities of the piano, and by the instinctive musicality that pervades them. This music is as much the result of rational planning, clear thinking, and thorough technical understanding as it is the fruit of intuition and inspiration.

Ruth Laredo’s traversal of Scriabin’s sonatas appeared on the Connoisseur Society label around 1970. Not only was the composer’s centenary then approaching, but his visions of mind-expanding artistic experiences and synergistic fusions of the arts were echoed in the modern culture of psychedelia (short-lived as it proved to be). There was a flurry of Scriabin recordings, many of them hasty, ill-conceived, and utterly oblivious to the music’s artistic demands. At the time Laredo’s series of recordings loomed as the most musically profound and pianistically competent of those available, while offering extremely fine sonic reproduction as well. Their disappearance from the catalog was a real loss, although I always felt they were too good to disappear for long. In the meantime some of the better-known pianists of Laredo’s generation—no longer youngsters—have tackled Scriabin’s music, as have some of the new generation of pianists, for whom Scriabin is viewed as somewhat less of a mystery. Hence the welcome opportunity for reassessment provided by Nonesuch’s reissue of the Laredo performances.

Overall her readings remain impressive. Among her strong points is the way she savors the sensuousness of the music without sacrificing either textural or rhythmic clarity. An even more important virtue is her ability to maintain a continuous, coherently flowing linear thrust throughout the later, more complex sonatas. While many pianists tend to alternate between unrelated extremes of languor and nervous frenzy, it is necessary as Laredo does, to bring these two tendencies into one integrated gestalt. Her approach is most successful in what are probably the two finest of the sonatas, i.e., those that convey the most intense insights and develop them most fully, concisely, and convincingly: the Sonatas Nos. 5 and 9. Some of the other sonatas seem not to interest her so much, resulting in interpretations that are superficial and indifferent.

The Sonata No. 1 of 1891 is probably the weakest work of the cycle. Almost obscured by the shadows of Chopin and Liszt, most of its developmental activity entails matters of piano figuration. The thematic material, while recognizable as Scriabin’s does not draw much atten­tion. Its most interesting features are the funeral march which serves as finale and the opportunity the work provides of witnessing Scriabin’s compositional sophistication and stylistic frame of reference at age 19, as represented in a large form. Laredo does little, however, to kindle any sense of spontaneity or vitality in the work, nor does any other pianist I have heard.

For the next six years, Scriabin worked intermittently on his Sonata No. 2. “Sonata-Fantasy.” Despite its rather tortured period of gestation, it is articulated with remarkable freedom and a natural sense of assurance. From the start this two-movement sonata proclaims itself the work of no other creative personality but Scriabin, despite the fact that it too accepts an in­herited melodic-harmonic syntax. One of the least often played sonatas, it is quite lovely—memorable melodically and sophisticated pianistically. Only about 12 minutes long, it deserves much wider exposure. Both Laredo and Ashkenazy (London CS-7087; not currently in print) have given fine performances, although Ashkenazy seems a little stiff and forced, in comparison with Laredo’s smooth, spontaneous reading.

With the Sonata No. 3 of 1898, Scriabin returned to a large, four-movement format for the last time. This may be considered the culminating work of his early period. Again there are aspects, especially in the first two movements, that are a bit too conventional in phraseology (unlike the Sonata No. 2), but fanciers of mainstream 19th-century piano music should have no problem with it. In fact, I am surprised that it is not played more often (but then again, the piano repertoire is perpetuated more by precedent and habit than by anything resembling ac­tive musical discrimination). The third movement leaps out as the most striking, displaying Scriabin’s gift for gorgeous, long-lined melody—the first truly distinctive feature of his style to proclaim itself. Horowitz’s recording from the mid-1950s (RCA LM-2005) was exciting enough, in his manner, but Ashkenazy’s (London CS-6920; still in print) is positively brilliant. Not only does he play the fiery, dramatic portions with utter conviction, but he caresses the lyrical, poetic aspects with excruciating sensitivity. Laredo is quite a disappointment in this sonata. Although she too plays the slow movement with sensitivity, the rest of the work seems not to interest her at all, making the result utterly prosaic. One of the work’s most striking moments is the final coda, in which a triumphant apotheosis is suddenly transformed into a wild flight of terror. This part seemed to enflame Horowitz’s imagination, and Ashkenazy renders it brilliantly as well, but Laredo misses the point altogether. I would not be surprised if she learned the work in undue haste.

By the time Scriabin turned to his Sonata No. 4, in 1903, he had completed two symphonies and was ready now to reach beyond the conventional Romantic language, which no longer met his needs. A transitional work, this sonata aims toward a more limpid, mercurial sort of expression, much less harmonically stable—one in which sheer sensuousness becomes a prominent element. As the Third Sonata may be viewed as successor to the First, so the Fourth may be regarded as successor to the Second, with its two-section, slow-fast design.

Andrei Gavrilov is a 30-year-old Russian pianist who won the Tchaikovsky Competition at 19. His performances of the Fourth Sonata and of 24 early preludes (drawn from Opp. 9, 11, 13, 15, and 16), dating mostly from the period of the Second Sonata, approach the music pri­marily as studies in piano coloration. While he highlights the delicate and sensuous aspects beautifully, Gavrilov seems oblivious to its deeper emotional dimensions. This is not such a loss in the preludes, in which the challenge to a pianist’s command of touch, color, and articu­lation is primary. But there is quite a bit more even to these early preludes—poems that reflect succinctly on the issues of mood, style, and emotion that concerned Scriabin in his larger works. In this light I find Gavrilov quite superficial and cosmetic. In the Fourth Sonata, he offers a lovely surface, but misses aspects revealed in many other performances. Of the versions I checked, Ashkenazy (CS-6920) again surpasses the others with a magnificent reading. Hilda Somer (Mercury SR-90500; not in print) is also fine, but badly recorded; Kuerti (Monitor MCS-2134) is rather somber and dogged, missing the more mercurial and flamboyant aspects; Laredo is acceptable, but a little earthbound in this one.

Gavrilov also offers the Étude, Op. 42, No. 5, the best-known of this group of eight. Composed about the same time as the Divine Poem, these études are marvelously imaginative and inventive in their use of the piano’s resources, while brilliant as vignettes revealing the stylistic transformations of Scriabin’s middle period. Op. 42, No. 5, by far the most striking of the set, is particularly difficult, as its dark, restless turbulence, relieved by a characteristically soar­ing melody, is built upon continuous figurations that must be clear while remaining in the background. Gavrilov is O.K., but the nuances missing from his interpretation can be found in Laredo’s. The inclusion of the entire set of Op. 42 Études, played with penetrating insight, is one of the bonuses of the Laredo set.

The Sonata No. 5 dates from 1907, the same year as the Poem of Ecstasy, to which it is a kindred work, leading from Scriabin’s middle period into his final phase. The main connection between the two works, aside from the composer’s own attempts to link them, is found in their quest for a state of transcendent euphoria. But the sonata has none of the grandiloquence of the orchestral work. Instead, its brilliance lies in the rhythmic fluidity through which he creates that irrepressible, agitated sense of delight that is another unique feature of Scriabin’s matu­rity—an expression captured more successfully in this work than in any other. A revealing comparison is provided by Vladimir Horowitz (RCA ARL1-1766), Sviatoslav Richter (DG SLPM-138 849), Ashkenazy (CS-6920), and Laredo. While Horowitz is quite comfortable with Scriabin’s earlier style, the later pieces elude him completely. Approaching them primarily as technical challenges, he offers only the most shallow, two-dimensional readings. Music for which a performance tradition has yet to be carved in stone is, of course, the real test of a per­former’s mettle. Horowitz is clearly over his head in this music, attempting to dazzle with only his massive sound and ferocious virtuosity. Richter’s No. 5, from a 1962 concert, is even worse—angular, disjointed, and ugly. Listen to either of them side by side against Laredo and hear for yourself the combination of coherence and spontaneity that is her particular distinction in this music. Her performance of the Fifth Sonata is superior to any I have heard—including Ashkenazy’s. As noted with regard to the Second Sonata, Ashkenazy sometimes displays a slightly rigid, over-driven quality most noticeable alongside the fluency of Laredo’s better performances.

The five sonatas from Scriabin’s late period all date from the years 1911-13. Here are found the notoriously fragmented gestures, in which trills and dissonant chord figurations play important motivic roles, the disintegration of tonal and rhythmic stability, and the exploration of a personal harmonic language much more complex and demanding than before. Scriabin was now entering the realm of the most innovative and experimental voices of his time. Yet the structure of these late works is usually adapted from sonata form, with its motivic continuity in a developmental context; thus a coherent thread is always evident. But while Scriabin’s music is in many ways more formally responsible than that of many of his contemporaries, his personal and verbal extravagance created the very opposite impression—that of some wild-eyed, drooling lunatic, banging away at the piano in an onanistic frenzy—an impression that remains in the minds of some listeners, discrediting the legitimate importance and artistic merit of much that he accomplished.

The five late sonatas are quite complex, expressively as well as structurally. Though commentators—notably, biographer Faubion Bowers, who provides entertaining program notes for the Laredo set—have sought to characterize them verbally, taking the composer’s own fanciful descriptions as points of departure, such efforts tend to be hopelessly subjective, sometimes misleading, and generally of little value in providing insight into the music. As long as I have known these works and as fond as I am of them, I am hesitant to commit myself to distinct characterizations beyond the most general terms. I will, however, go so far as to observe that the late sonatas reflect a new concern with expressions of evil, danger, and terror, counter­balancing the preoccupation with ecstasy that had hitherto dominated the music. There is a strikingly ominous quality to the Sonata No. 6, for example, not found in any previous sonata. Laredo captures this essence most effectively, as does Kuerti, on Monitor. The darkness and mystery of this work seem to suit him much better than the lighter-toned Fourth Sonata.

The Sonata No. 7, sometimes called the “White Mass,” is perhaps the most elusive, intuitive, and complex of all the sonatas. With a much attenuated motivic coherence, it is the hardest to characterize and the most difficult to project in performance. Ashkenazy (CS-7087) is a little smoother and more meticulous in this one than is Laredo, but both are excellent.

The Sonata No. 8 has a more distinctive motivic profile, somewhat reminiscent of the Fifth, making it easier to grasp than the Seventh. Yet it has all the textural entanglements of the other late works. Why it seems to receive the least attention of the late sonatas I do not know. Laredo’s performance is very well shaped, although no other performance was available for comparison.

The Sonata No. 9 is known as the “Black Mass,” and is one of Scriabin’s most demoniacal works, yet at the same time the most lucid major work from his later period. In fact, it may be the greatest of all the sonatas, epitomizing the dark side of Scriabin as the Fifth Sonata epito­mizes the ardent, ecstatic side. Despite its strange content—portents of doom, a wild ghost-march, and a violent climax—the Ninth has such a clear structural profile that it is the ideal starting point for an understanding of the late works. As mentioned earlier, Laredo surpasses all others in this work, including Ashkenazy and Horowitz, who exhibit the same shortcomings cited in the discussion of the Fifth Sonata.

The Sonata No. 10 is highly regarded by many, often described (predictably) as the culmination of Scriabin’s mastery in integrating form and content within the genre of the piano sonata. While its ideas are more fragmentary and idiosyncratic than in the previous sonatas (and hence more “advanced”), I find it structurally simpler than the Seventh and far less tightly drawn than the Ninth. I don’t mean to denigrate it, because it is a fascinating work, no less than Nos. 6, 7, or 8, but only to put it in perspective. Instead of unfolding in a long develop­mental line, it returns to material episodically, as if continually running out of steam. This tends to make it diffuse and especially difficult to bring off effectively. Laredo is surprisingly inadequate in this sonata. As penetrating and fluent as she is in the Ninth, she is shallow, unfocused, and careless in this one. Horowitz (CBS M2S-757) is not too bad, although he doesn’t have the delicacy of textural nuance for this music. Ashkenazy (CS-7087) is truly extraordinary, giving the most carefully and sensitively articulated performance of the Tenth I have heard. Also quite fine is a recording I reviewed glowingly some years back (Fanfare IV:1, pp. 141-2) featuring the German-born, American-trained pianist Volker Banfield (Wergo WER-60081). The ensuing years have not diminished my enthusiasm over that unusual recording.

The Laredo set is augmented by some other incidental pieces, in addition to the Études, Op. 42. There is the soulful Étude in C#t minor, Op. 2, No. 1, also known in a Stokowski or­chestration; the two Preludes, Op. 57–“Desir” and “Caress Dansee”; and the totally bizarre Vers la Flamme, Op. 72. Laredo’s readings of the Op. 57 pieces are both ethereal and sensuous, befitting the music, although a radically different account may be found on the Glenn Gould Silver Jubilee Album (CBS M2X-35914). Gould treats the music in a predictably Germanic manner, with great deliberation, so that the pieces sound like somber afterthoughts on the Berg Sonata. Op. 1. The miniature masterpiece, Vers la Flamme, one of Scriabin’s last and most imagistic works, is like a musical nightmare built on a simple motif of two notes, a semi­tone apart. As always with Scriabin, there is a tremendous challenge to the pianist to control the articulation of the primary material relative to secondary textures, which became more and more complex as Scriabin grew older. I have heard many pianists fail to project the work effectively, and Laredo is only partially successful. I would love to hear both Banfield and Ashkenazy do it. Hilda Somer (on her Mercury disc) gave quite a compelling rendition.

There are more Scriabin recordings than circumstances have allowed me to sample in this overview. My comparison of those versions available to me renews my admiration for Laredo’s excellent readings. Despite occasional lapses there is a high order of pianism and a much more consistent level of understanding than one usually encounters in performances of Scriabin. Her superb playing of Sonatas Nos. 5 and 9, as well as perfectly acceptable performances of Nos. 2, 4, 6, 7, and 8, together with the brilliant readings of the Op. 42 Études, make this a very strong entry in the Scriabin discography. Listeners who, for one reason or another, have yet to fully embrace this music, but are ready for a sample, are urged to grab the earlier Ashkenazy disc (London CS-6920) containing the Sonatas Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 9-probably the best one-disc Scriabin record available.

SCRIABIN: The Ten Piano Sonatas. Eight Etudes, Op. 42. Etude in C# minor, Op. 2, No. 1. Two Preludes, Op. 57. Vers la Flamme, Op. 72. Ruth Laredo, piano. NONESUCH 73035 (three discs), produced by E. Alan Silver.

SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 4. Preludes: Op. 9, No. 1; Op. 11, Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24; Op. 13, Nos. 1-3; Op. 15, Nos. 1, 5; Op. 16, Nos. 2, 4. Étude, Op. 42, No. 5. Andrei Gavrilov, piano. ANGEL DS-38161 (digital), produced by John Mordler.