Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
Although the music on this CD was written between 1895 and 1911, it appears to emanate from different universes. These were years of turbulent revolutionary changes in politics and science, as well as in culture. The bloody 1905 revolution in Russia, the Theory of Relativity, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and the first atonal pieces by Schönberg (who greatly admired Scriabin) were among the countless markers of these changes.
Scriabin’s 12 Etudes, Opus 8 (1895) still face the past, though they display enough of Scriabin’s dark and disturbing personality to prevent their being mistaken for Chopin. His 6th Piano Sonata, Opus 62 (1911), on the other hand, faces in the opposite direction. Unequivocally a product of the 20th century, growling with premonitions and wallowing in mystical ambiguities, its harmonies are barely tonal. The Glazunov Sonata in B-flat minor, Opus 74, though written in the 20th century (1901), has more affinity to an earlier time, combining a seriousness of purpose and formal discipline comparable to Brahms with a powerful virtuosic streak more reminiscent of Tchaikovsky or Liszt.
Scriabin’s and Glazunov’s difference in character was matched by their difference in personality; about all they had in common was the name Aleksandr. Glazunov was an eminent and affluent member of the establishment, Russia’s most highly respected and influential composer at the turn of the century. He was endowed with one of those extraordinary talents that allowed him to remember every detail of music he had heard, leading his detractors to claim that this could be detected in his compositions; even he himself sometimes made fun of his music by citing the influence of older composers in various passages!
Director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, and on the advisory committee for the publisher Beliaieff, who published both composer’s works, Glazunov was born seven years before Scriabin, and outlived him by 21 years. An outstanding and prolific craftsman, a master of orchestration and counterpoint, he was a classicist and a traditionalist.
After his early works, Scriabin discarded the past — his style changed more than that of almost any other composer during his brief career — and sought out the bizarre, tormented extremes of artistic expression. He saw himself as much more than a composer, as a chosen leader in the redemption of mankind. “I am the creator of a new world. I am God,” he is reported to have blurted out once. His personal life, like his music, was full of turmoil, and he was constantly on the brink of poverty.
Music lovers were sharply divided by his daring creations; they tended either to worship him or detest him. For example Arensky, an eminent composer, wrote “One dissonance after another piles up without a single thought behind any of it. I can’t understand why Liadov consented to conduct such rot.” The symbolist poets were more receptive; Balmont writes: “Scriabin is the singing of a falling moon… The cry of soul to soul… A singing illumination of the air itself, in which he himself is a captive child of the gods.”
The Études, Opus 8 start out with a pleading sweetness, which in No. 2 turns into an angular and highly expressive boldness, utilizing a juxtaposition of rhythmic groups of 5 against 3 and 5 against 4; such rhythmically clashing units became one of Scriabin’s trademarks. No. 3 starts ominously, keeping its passions tightly restrained, even attempting to hide them with a warm, yearning middle section before letting loose toward the end.
No. 4 returns to a beautifully embellished sweetness, that also deliciously incorporates uneven rhythmic groups of 5. The next is heroic as it jumps fearlessly back and forth in its register; its triumphant mood is heightened dramatically after the darker pathos of the middle section, as the opening material returns with tumultuous triplets replacing the previous eighths.
If No. 6 is troubling only for the pianist, an absolutely charming, untroubled cascade of sixths, the next is filled with anxiety for the listener as well. The fleeting shadows of the left hand provide a nervous tension that evaporates only briefly for the middle section, which shows Scriabin’s rapidly evolving and highly personal harmonic style. The 8th Étude exudes very fragrant harmonies, but this time the emphasis is on flowing melody, especially in the middle section. No. 9 is one of the most daring, with its leaping octaves thundering in one or both hands, and also one of the most dramatic. But many of Scriabin’s passionate pieces, like this one, evaporate and end softly; many editions have unfortunately altered this.
No. 10 combines an innocuous charm with two devilish difficulties: frolicking double notes in the right hand and a wildly leaping left hand accompaniment. The next is again a melodic study, full of mournful, slavic sorrow, preparing the passionate outburst of the last, most famous étude of the group. Its bolts of daring leaps and its savage abandon make a splendid ending to this beautiful and varied set.
Scriabin was supposedly in fear of the one-movement Sixth Sonata, Opus 62, and it is the only one he never performed. Its moods and intentions can perhaps best be conveyed by the unusual, nearly choreographic instructions written into the score; the composer is reported to have talked while playing his late works for friends, using similar images: mysterious, concentrated; strange, winged — referring to the main motive, the 6-note arabesque in the third bar; mysterious breath; caressing wave; the dream takes form — clarity, sweetness, purity; winged, swirling; mysterious call; more and more seductively, under a spell; swelling of mysterious forces; sudden collapse; the terror surges, and joins the delirious dance; such words confirm the burning desire of this music to lift us into a supernatural trance.
While Scriabin wrote mainly for the piano (aside from some half dozen extraordinary symphonic works) Glazunov wrote over fifty orchestral works and only two pianos sonatas, two concertos, and a few suites, waltzes and other incidental pieces. These few works, however, display a superb pianistic sense, which is perhaps best represented in the B-flat-minor Sonata. Within the bounds of his conservative, yet imaginative and stirringly romantic idiom, he has a very personal approach to counterpoint, utilizing highly chromatic lines.
The first movement sonata form exquisitely contrasts the seething, threatening quality of the main idea with the soaring sweet melody of the second theme. The slow movement at first appears as a reverie on an extremely simple theme, whose main effect is created by its pianistically ornate embellishments in variation style. It might strike one as too saccharine, were it not for the passionate sequences of the more severe middle section. The finale is simply a whirlwind of pianistic joy, exuberant and ecstatic. The frothing sextuplets continue as an undercurrent even through the more contemplative and expressive middle section.
© Anton Kuerti, 1995