Scriabin piano sonata no. 1 in Fm, op. 6

performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy
(this is the first of a few parts. Click through for the rest of the piece).
Ashkenazy is my man for the Scriabin sonatas. That Decca sound might be a bit noticeable in its tinny, slightly echoey nature, but I’ve come to love his interpretations. While I haven’t heard his performance of the piano concerto, for the sonatas, he’s my favorite. I’ve heard some others, and have a few different recordings, but it’s probably just because I’ve listened repeatedly to Ashkenazy’s performances so many times that it’s become the standard. Also, he’s just such a stinking nice guy.
Let’s start at the beginning. We will, in this short string of piano sonatas over the next few weeks, get to Chopin (as intimidated as I am to write about something so well-known), but he plays a significant part in my introduction to classical music. He was kind of the first person I thought of when I thought ‘classical music’, and since I started my classical adventure focused solely on the piano, he was an even more logical place to start, as the man lived and breathed the instrument. Aside from a few concertante works (including two piano concerti) and a cello sonata, everything was solo piano for this man. So that’s where I started.
But somewhere along the line, I came across Scriabin, and he was hailed as this unsung musical genius. I was intrigued by the description (somewhere), and it read (in my head) like his music was obscure, arcane, yet deeply powerful, almost sacred in its expression, and it was almost like a challenge. I decided that I had to crack this nut and ‘get’ it, see what the fuss was about. I started at the beginning, and it was somewhat of a logical transition, because he was likened to Chopin in his early works, so I plugged in the earphones and let sonata no. 1 rip.
There are obviously a few things that stood out for me from the beginning. While Chopin wholly embodied the romantic era and the piano, his music was never brash, harshly or as rawly expressive as the opening lines of this sonata. But then again, Chopin never injured his hand (practicing Balakirev’s Islamey and Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy) and hear that he would never play piano again, like Scriabin did. Thankfully he eventually recovered, but the piece immediately expresses a sentiment and a vocabulary that is entirely different from Chopin while still sounding… Romantic-ish.
The expression at the beginning of this piece, completed in 1892, is intense, and fits the quote from Wikipedia stating the following from the liner notes in Ashkenazy’s box set with Decca:

The first piano sonata was Scriabin’s personal cry against God: the tragedy of the loss of a virtuoso pianist to whimsical fate, God’s design. 

This movement is marked allegro con fuoco. It is fitting. While it’s in F minor, and unsettled in it’s hurried, thundering beginning and almost frenetic flurry of notes, it’s almost as if the harmonies in it take a positive turn, and it’s in this happier passage that one hears influence from Chopin. It’s significantly more flowing and lyrical, but the rhythms and many of the harmonies are far from anything Chopin would write. Then there’s a triumphant, almost marchy staccato-like rhythm that sounds like it must have modulated to a major key that climbs to an almost joyous climax, but with a bit of the passion and fire from the opening. It sounds incredibly dense and difficult to interpret. The middle portion is still dark and gloomy, but not so angry and fiery as the beginning. There are some truly beautiful, heart wrenching passages in this first movement, and then the opening theme comes storming back. There is something also whimsical about this first movement, but not in a fun way. The piece ends with just the slightest little hint of a theme that will show up again in the very bleak fourth movement. The first movement fades out quietly, and we are immediately into the second, marked adagio. 
It too is melancholy, even just straight-up sad. It is in C minor, and relative to the first movement, it is quiet, even peaceful. The sadness that this movement might generally express is lessened, in my opinion, when contrasted with the fire of the first, so it is almost a quiet breath of rest. When the main melody comes in around a minute and a half in, it then truly does feel sorrowful and tragic, but not entirely devoid of hope. This movement is simple, slower, while the middle section has a bit more movement to it. There is more expression in the bass (arpeggiated chords?) against the main theme here, and there are some noticeable dissonances, hinting at Scriabin’s individual voice in this Romantic-esque piece. The movement finishes in C major, although it doesn’t actually feel positive or bright in this bleak landscape Scriabin is creating for us.
Again, an instant contrast with the third movement marked presto. It brings us back to the agitated, brash nature of the first movement with its plethora of notes and frenetic emotion. This movement does actually quote the first, and we are back in F minor here, with a middle section of this rondo-form in A major. The middle section relents for a bit before we get back to an even heavier ending section. This is the shortest movement of the sonata, and there sound to be many things in this movement that suggest the style that Scriabin would develop later in his career: hammering, thundering dark low bass, dissonance, and a texture created by ornate rhythms and countermelodies. The movement ends abruptly, without any resolve and jumps right into the fourth and final movement, marked funebre. We are back to F minor. Again, Chopin may come to mind, as this minor funereal march type movement has many similarities to Chopin’s in his second piano sonata (which we will also eventually get to). This one is not as solemn and markedly march-like, but certainly just as dark and mournful, if not even more full of despair. It cannot be thundered out or played tastelessly, even in its more intense moments, and Ashkenazy maintains restraint and a delicate touch to keep this movement tasteful but full of expression. It is a wide-open, dark, landscape. There are solemn, lonely moments of quiet with only echoes of chords in the bass, but it swells and dies with beautiful harmonies. The opening theme comes back toward the end, and we begin to realize there is no glimmer of light left, there’s no hope for the end. Rather, the opening melody builds momentum, towers over the listener and ends as darkly as it began. Scriabin shows no hope.
I haven’t given Chopin a lot of attention lately, but gave many of his works plenty of playtime in the first year or so I was really getting into classical music. After having listened to so much else since then and becoming familiar with so much more, it’s fascinating to go back to a piece like his second piano sonata (which we shall get to in due course) and see really how much of a piece like this, Scriabin’s first sonata, comes from the style and language of Chopin. Much of the expression is so similar: the tone, rhythms, and even the progression of the pieces in certain parts. It’s wonderful to see how a young Russian composer could stay so true to and be so influenced by and give such a nod to a composer like Chopin, and yet still show so strongly his own personality, especially in a piece much bleaker (from beginning to end) than anything Chopin would write. I was thrilled to listen to these back to back, and appreciated each one more afterward.
The way the rest of the sonata plays out after the first movement shows us that, relatively speaking, some of those brighter moments in the beginning were about as happy as this piece gets. It is unabashedly dismal from there on out. That’s the only negative thing I think I could say about this piece. While thematically it shows great contrast (the first and third movements being the lively, fiery ones, and the even movements being the quiet, morbidly sad ones), it ends up being the exact opposite of a feel good piece. There’s very little room to breathe when that atmosphere never lets up. While I have feelings about this piece as the first one of Scriabin’s works I encountered (and wouldn’t let myself move on to his later works before I felt like I got this one), his more mature pieces have won me over more convincingly than this one did.
It does, however, play an important part in coming to learn about this composer, especially if you aren’t familiar with the vocabulary he (or any other more modern Russian composer) uses. This is a good place to start. Identify what makes him similar to Chopin, as well as what clearly identifies him as different and why. It’s not until we get to about his sonata no. 5 (the first of his one-movement sonatas, the only way he would write them from that point forward) that I feel he really starts to come into his own and find his voice. It’s those later sonatas that I really love, but this one is an important jumping off point if you want to see and understand the dramatic (and quite compact) development of this fascinating composer.

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