Scriabin piano sonata no. 3 in F#m, op. 23

performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy

This is such an impressive piece to be only an opus no. 23. For whatever reason, in my concerted efforts to come to love Scriabin, I gravitated more immediately to the first and third sonatas, the only of his oeuvre in the “standard” four-movement form. Of his early works, I feel the third to be the most mature, the pinnacle of his early period (at least in context of his ten sonatas).
In my head, I kind of paired them up: the two four-movement sonatas (1 and 3) and the two two-movement sonatas (2 and 4) and it actually wasn’t even until I’d really come to love the late sonatas that I came back to get familiar with 2 and 4.
We’ve talked about the second piano sonata before, (as well as the first) and it may be worth a look back at those pieces, because I feel like in the third, he incorporates the greatest strengths of the previous two sonatas into a really focused, mature, polished, expressive, and very individual work. The first is perhaps overshadowed by its… very dark nature (beautiful music, to be sure, but perhaps a bit heavy), and then the second, while also fantastically beautiful, is more like a two-movement fantasy, and both bring Chopin to mind. The third is a wonderful middle ground of Romantic ideas, Russianness, personal Scriabin-esque expression (unique harmonies and fascinating rhythms) in a cohesive, tightly-knit package, one that feels more like absolute music to me than either of the first two, although it itself had a program (although it seems that it was later grafted onto the piece rather than written from it). Let’s talk about that.
This work came shortly after his piano concerto, op. 20, was composed between 1897 and 1898, and  is equally as Romantic. In fact, I can kind of hear them in the same vein. After the concerto (his only) was performed for the
first time, he and his new young wife (also a pianist) moved to Paris, where he started work on this sonata. In the liner notes to Ashkenazy’s box set of Scriabin’s sonatas, it is said that “Scriabin is said to have called the finished work “Gothic”, evoking the impression of a ruined castle.” That image stuck with me. From the very first two or three bars, it feels strong and towering and mildly dark but confident. It seems odd to me that anyone would do this, but it’s not the first (or last) time it has happened: a number of years later, he thought up a new program for the work, as follows (per Wikipedia):

  • [First movement, Drammàtico:] The soul, free and wild, thrown into the whirlpool of suffering and strife.
  • [Second movement, Allegretto:] Apparent momentary and illusory respite; tired from suffering the soul wants to forget, wants to sing and flourish, in spite of everything. But the light rhythm, the fragrant harmonies are just a cover through which gleams the restless and languishing soul.
  • [Third movement, Andante:] A sea of feelings, tender and sorrowful: love, sorrow, vague desires, inexplicable thoughts, illusions of a delicate dream.
  • [Finale, Presto con fuoco:] From the depth of being rises the fearsome voice of creative man whose victorious song resounds triumphantly. But too weak yet to reach the acme he plunges, temporarily defeated, into the abyss of non-being.

The only one of these descriptions or programmatic ideas that fits with my personal ‘interpretation’ or experience of the sonata is that of the third movement. I remember having read the Wikipedia article about this piece years ago; the Gothic castle image stuck with me, but this program’s ideas did not. It does remind me of some of Scriabin’s ideas for ambitious works like an opera (or whatever other work that was going to end the world being performed on Mount Everest or whatever). It sounds similarly dramatic and almost to express similar themes. But I don’t hear it (or want to) in the music.
The first movement, like I mentioned earlier, begins strongly and confidently, as if looking out over the landscape below from the craggy tower of a castle on a high mountain, like a Russian Lord of the Rings scene (without the fantasy bits). It does sound Gothic and dark and mysterious, but at the same time, lyrical and moving and emotional. I really love this first movement, and it’s probably what got me hooked on this sonata. The first movement is in an unrepeated sonata form, and the opening theme shows up again later. The music is established early (both the subject matter for development and the emotions it conveys), and the other three movements after this I feel are all almost like… consequences, natural progressions from this opening movement. It really is stunning.
The second movement presents what I, at least, feel to be a lighter subject matter. It isn’t as heavy as the first movement, nor as soft as the third. It’s also the shortest of the four. While it’s lively and chatty in places, it has a certain understated, graceful, refined nature to it, especially in the opening and the middle section. The A section (at the beginning and end) reaches a thunderous climax, but it is a nice little movement.
The third movement has such a lyrical, delicate kind of expression and simple beauty. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to hold your breath so you can hear it better. In contrast with the intricate, busy, Romantic (gothic?) sort of drama of the first movement, and the Allegretto, this one is quiet and peaceful, but even in its less lively manner, it still reaches a nice harmonic kind of climax and tension and release. This movement has its own perfectly wonderful theme, but it also has a very well-placed restatement of the opening theme from the first movement almost directly quoted, just as the movement comes to an end, just suggestively ominous, a whiff of a memory that kind of makes the whole piece up to this point very coherent, and it leads without pause into the more stormy fourth movement.
Well-placed transition, sir. This movement, appropriately titled Presto con Fuoco, is just that. The opening still has hints at that glorious opening theme. The Gothic really comes back here, in a lot of ways. It’s all there in among all the fuoco. It’s a nice virtuosic movement, but also shows quite a wide range of emotions. It has its lyrical moments, dramatic ones, exciting and more uplifting ones. It too is in sonata form. For some reason… (listening to it now) the last minute or so brought to mind Chopin’s first ballade in Gm (interesting also op. 23!), as a kind of narrative, like being taken by the hand and guided around somewhere you used to know very well 20 years ago. That made sense in my head, but Chopin’s Gm ballade always conjures up certain images and feelings, and I sort of had a similar thought there toward the end. While this movement seems busy and intricate and perhaps even flighty, it ends in a decisive, dramatic way that feels fitting for the sonata as a whole. It feels strongly like the second half, or the other side of (or something!) the first movement. There’s a very cohesive nature I feel in this sonata, and I like that.
I also have to say… for better or worse, I have come to hold Ashkenazy’s performances of all the sonatas as the gold standard. I got used to his box set, and nothing comes close to me. That’s a vey biased approach, and I am reminded of that when I hear these pieces elsewhere (live or in recordings), but just be prepared for every sonata of Scriabin’s to be performed by Ashkenazy. He also has, hands down, the best performance of the monumental eighth sonata. We’ll get there.
I must say I am terribly eager to get to Scriabin’s late sonatas, the single-movement ones, because they’re where his genius and individuality really shine. I haven’t heard any of them live before. This isn’t to be a discussion of the fourth or fifth, (which I heard in a recital along with this piece last night), but I feel the third sonata is really the culmination of what Scriabin would do in the ‘standard’ four-movement form. It was his last, and he went on to do incredibly inventive and marvelous things beyond the standard traditions of a sonata in a three- or four-movement structure. Having heard the fourth last night with the fifth, it seemed like it was a transitional piece. Not again in a sonata would Scriabin be (in my opinion) as classically Romantic as he was here. While I don’t hear the ‘Romantic purge’ that I hear in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, (perhaps Scriabin purges elsewhere), this sonata would be the last of his more traditional, and what was to come later was wholly unlike anything before it. I’m excited to get there in our discussions, but for now, his third sonata presents a sweet, approachable but insightful middle ground between this composer’s inventiveness and his Romantic background. It’s on to newer and more unique from here. Enjoy.

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