Alexander Scriabin: Piano Concerto, op 20

performed by the Chicago Symphony orchestra under Pierre Boulez
Anatol Ugorsky, piano  (for Deutsche Grammophon)
  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro moderato
There’s nothing like really good straightforward music. It’s interesting how sometimes certain pieces make me think of certain emotions or get the introspective wheels spinning, while others are just kind of purely directly enjoyable, without conjuring up thoughts or nostalgia or feelings that make it so. I don’t really know quite what I feel about this piece or how I process it, it’s just really stinking enjoyable. It’s clean, unpretentious, not complicated or challenging, but that’s not to say it lacks any kind of depth. It’s music without an agenda.
As mentioned in the previous post (and some others), for whatever reason, I’d made it a goal to come to understand and appreciate the music of Scriabin. I’d heard him hailed as a musical pioneer and genius, if not a bit insane, and I wanted to see what made him so.
I started with the larger-scale musical form that he had more of that I would be more familiar with, the sonata. While he’d written etudes and preludes and mazurkas and polkas, those are smaller works, and I wasn’t even as familiar with other composers’ polkas and etudes, etc. So I felt that was a good place to start.
I started with his first sonata, as I supposed was most logical. Although I did notice similarities to Chopin in some areas, it still felt very different from the kind of expression I was used to hearing in Chopin’s music. The first few (up to about #4 or so) were far easier to adapt to than the latter five or six, but we’ll get to those later.
In any case, I warmed up to his much later sonatas before learning
he had a piano concerto, so I was extremely eager to hear it. And we have this. Scriabin was older than Chopin when he wrote his concerto, but still young. I believe Chopin was only about 20 years old (or thereabouts) when he wrote both his piano concerti, and Scriabin here is 24. Again, I feel in this piece, the music isn’t overshadowed by pretentiousness or the expression of specific emotions; it’s just music.
For some reason I associate it with Chopin’s concertos. It’s not the Russian, dissonant, eery modern kind of work he would have written had he been twenty years older. It’s clean, balanced, quite Romantic, and to me has a wonderful balance of piano and orchestra together. This is impressive, as it is his first work for orchestra, and apparently wrote it in only a few days, but took another six months or so to finish the orchestration. It premiered on October 23, 1897.
A nice concise work, it is around half an hour, maybe a bit shy. Not as short as the Rimsky-Korsakov concerto, but certainly also not as long as Rachmaninoff, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky would have written it. That being said, I love how it, like Liszt’s first piano concerto or Prokofiev’s first as well, although short, is still perfectly fulfilling and enjoyable. You don’t feel like it’s too short to be enjoyable or take it less seriously for its brevity. A half hour isn’t necessarily a short work, but it’s much shorter than many of the mainstays in the repertoire. That said, it is just stunningly beautiful.
To put this piece into context, let’s talk a little about his life: he was born in 1871 (on Christmas day, according to the Gregorian calendar) into an aristocratic family. His father studied Turkish, and his mother, herself a concert pianist, died of tuberculosis when he was still young. His father completed his studies and moved to Turkey to work as a diplomat. The young Scriabin was left at home with Grandma, great aunt, and aunt. One of his aunts was an amateur piano player and apparently took care of him and “documented his life” up to his first marriage. The young Scriabin apparently also built pianos and gifted them to houseguests. He studied at the Moscow conservatory under Arensky, Taneyev, and Safonov. He did not complete his composition studies due to disagreements with Arensky, and Arnesky’s signature is the only one missing from Scriabin’s graduation certificate. There’s a picture of a young Scriabin and a young Rachmaninoff among a small class of Nikolai Zverev’s students. Even young, you can see Rachmaninoff as tall and gangly, big ears and large-formed, while Scriabin was apparently of smaller stature, with hands that could barely reach a ninth, while Rachmaninoff could play a 12th or 13th. Anyway, I fully intend to feature much of Scriabin’s work here, so I’m not going to do the full bio at this point. That’s enough useful background to realize this guy was wonderfully precocious, talented, interested and driven. His music bears that out.
His piano concerto is in three movements:
Allegro moderato
I almost feel like this piece is kind of an obligatory piece, dare I say a writing exercise for Scriabin. It almost feels like a formality. While it is beautiful and shimmering and rich, it feels almost too polished to be something that he wrote. We will get to his sonatas and some other of his pieces in later posts, but in comparison, it is standout different to me. By this time he’d written his first two piano sonatas, and a large collection of mazurkas, etudes, and TONS of preludes. I find some similarity in this piece to his third piano sonata (which we will certainly get to in due course). It was completed the year after this piece was orchestrated, published and premiered.
One of my favorite sonatas, his third, was written within a year after this piece. I know that doesn’t make sense now unless you’re already super familiar with Scriabin’s timeline, but this is just me doing research and putting it into perspective. I find the second and third piano sonatas to be somewhat similar works in feeling and expression. As I referenced with his first, there was a clear similarity to Chopin’s work, or at least an influence from him (or maybe more generally the typical awash-with-emotion Romanticism; he’d even written 24 preludes in all twelve major and minor keys by this time, even in the same sequence as Chopin).
I said obligatory, but I don’t mean it negatively. A concerto is a big deal, a showoff piece of sorts for both composer and pianist, and it may have been a good career move for him to write something line this. I feel like had he written his ‘Poem of fire’ then, it would have been not as smart a career move. But that was years down the road, and Scriabin’s tonal vocabulary hadn’t developed fully, although I strongly feel it was headed in that direction. Even in the early sonatas, you can hear a wild hair he has toward something new and exciting, while using Chopin as a jumping-off point. Once he found his footing, he didn’t need that anymore and used himself as  jumping off point. There are glimpses of that in the first three sonatas, but I feel somewhat less so in this concerto, possibly because the orchestra keeps him centered or focused on something more traditional.
The first movement opens serenely, with horn, then strings, and clarinet. The piano creeps in, and this theme is repeated in the orchestra. It builds to a shimmering, beautiful swell, with the piano accompanying the orchestra before focusing back on the piano. This movement is trickly and tinkly and artistic.
This piece to me feels like it is a point in Scriabin’s career where he knew what he wanted to write or achieve (his ‘atonal’ expression that would come later), but wasn’t sure how to get there yet, or just hadn’t developed well enough to be ready. I say that because it’s not long after this piece that the composer really starts to open up and veer greatly from the standard harmonic and structural traditions of the Romantic era. We will eventually get to the piece that makes me say this, but for now, suffice it to say that this is a piece that’s early enough for the young Scriabin to still be developing, but mature enough that he knows what he wants.
The word gothic comes to mind. His third sonata is described as such, but not in the sense that the style is musically gothic (renaissance) or dark, but that it feels stately, epic, romantic (in the fairy tale princess and knight in shining armor kind of way). This piece (or at least this movement) makes me think of a castle perched atop a great mountain looking out over a vast flat wilderness of its kingdom, perhaps in the Scottish highlands (or maybe more fittingly, Russia), a fortress showing its age while still standing strong. Maybe that sounds a bit dark, but it’s the impression I get, in a totally positive manner. It’s stately and regal and full of dark rich navy blues and grays.
I talked about absolute music, music for the sake of music earlier, and while it sounds like I’m going back on that, I’m not. But in trying to process the feelings and beauty of this piece, I’m trying to get something relatable out of it. I don’t think of this imagery (as I said in the last post), but it’s something that evokes the sort of emotion that this piece conjures up. It’s gothic in that sense. It sounds even more castly with the triplet figures in the brass toward the end of the movement. There’s some tension or conversation between the orchestra and the piano, and the movement is solid enough that one feels these are the only two characters in the movement. The orchestra works and breathes as a whole here, and in among the towering heights of the movement, there are serene little valleys of delicacy. This is a magical, glistening, enchanted movement, and the theme from the beginning finishes out the movement with a bit more movement and energy. It’s a typically Romantic finish.
The second movement is a series of theme and variations, and I must say, it has to be one of the most beautiful passages Scriabin has ever written. It’s delicate, tender, restful, poetic. The strings open softly with the main theme, and it’s in F#, whereas the first movement (and the piece itself is in F#m), so this one does feel like a breath of fresh air. As the clarinet starts, so does the piano. The piano brings in the first variation, and it dances with the clarinet, backed by the orchestra, and I genuinely feel this is one of the most finely-written passages of Scriabin’s repertoire, if not any repertoire. It’s supremely perfect second-movement material. We lead right into the second variation. While this one has quite a bit more spring in its step, its still tender and round and soft. Something about it seems just almost Irish to me…. maybe it’s the flute flittering up at the top of the piano’s line; I’m not sure, but it’s happy. At this point it almost sounds like a film score to a Disney film or something. That variation is clearly over, and the piano comes in heavily with the beginning of the third variation, a funeral march. It sounds in structure and idea almost identical to the beginning, but with a 180º change in emotion. The piano is leading this one in the march, and the orchestra mourns in kind, but it doesn’t last long. There’s a much more intricate fourth variation, that, while it isn’t as fast and lively as the second variation, is brighter than the funeral march. It is still a bit meditative, but positive. This one is full of ornamentation and flittery notes, but doesn’t sound overly busy. It’s still peaceful. This one slips us right back around almost to the beginning theme. What I enjoy about this movement is that, even in less than nine minutes, it seamlessly and artistically expresses a range of emotion while keeping a general emotional center. The ideas are all related; there’s a beautiful logic to it. After all, I’ve always felt that a theme-and-variations piece/movement is just for the composer to show his/her prowess and ingenuity.
The third movement comes in strongly with the piano. This movement is the strongest of the three emotionally, the most powerful. While it feels a lot like the first, it’s a bit more vigorous. The theme at the beginning with the question and answer between piano and orchestra is the bit of this entire piece that gets stuck in my head. I’ll be tapping it out with my foot or humming it to myself for days now. It’s a big theme of the piece. It is resounding and energetic. This is the longest movement of the piece by a few minutes, and it builds in intensity with a lot of the same material and styles for the last few minutes up to a big, clean, crisp finish.
To be honest, I don’t want to say I get bored with this movement, but…. it’s a bit more of the same thing we had in the beginning movement. It’s stunning writing, and it keeps its momentum, but I suppose there’s nothing else specific to describe about it.
I haven’t listened to Ohlsson’s performance in its entirety, but the first half of the movement sounds far more inspired and Romantic (or maybe just more attentive and lively) than Ugorsky’s. Also, I just really really like Garrick Ohlsson. Look for any of his master classes on YouTube, and just listen to the man. He is full of insight, knowledge and talent, but humble and approachable as ever. I’ve listened to hours of his talking and explaining and teaching, and I love every minute of it.
While this piece is in a minor key, and sounds somewhat heart reaching and mellow or even sorrowful, I don’t feel it to be a sad piece. It Isis stunningly beautiful, and straightforwardly simple. It’s also an important part of Scriabin’s development and represents his early self very well. A must listen.

2 thoughts on “Alexander Scriabin: Piano Concerto, op 20

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