Scriabin Piano Sonata no. 4 in F-sharp major, Op. 30

performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Well, it hasn’t been as long since we’ve visited Scriabin. He was part of the the Russian Symphony Series and the Symphonic Poem series, but aside from his multiple symphonies and other orchestral work, he arguably made his name primarily through his piano works, and it’s this mustachioed musician who was the greatest impetus for the Russian Piano series.

I’d argue that Scriabin’s piano sonata cycle (a rare thing in itself looking back at the past century and a half of music) is one of the greatest in music history. There’s obviously the sonata contributions of Mozart and Beethoven, but Chopin only wrote three (the latter two obviously historical, the first almost entirely ignored), Liszt the big one, same for Tchaikovsky (and a posthumous one)… and Scriabin with ten piano sonatas among many more solo works. But what we’re working toward is more than just good music.

It’s innovation. There are some hallmarks of Scriabin’s early piano music, like his firm footing in the Romantic language and tradition, but also a unique and readily identifiable individuality, a color and expression all his own. The fourth sonata today is a point at which the composer compresses these influences to just about their densest form, before something else very interesting (finally) takes place.

Scriabin’s even-numbered early sonatas (2 and 4) are each in two movements, while the earliest odd-numbered works (1 and 3) are in four movements. The two-movement form strikes me as less sonata-like, and more like some kind of fantasy or something, but it’s a very interesting work nonetheless.

It was written in 1903 (as you shall see, an important year for Russian piano music, it seems) and its two movements are Andante and Prestissimo volando. It’s the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas, at only 8 minutes, but bears an interesting form.

Wikipedia cites no sources in describing the work as “erotic.” Perhaps that’s what you get when you take ‘romantic’ to its extreme, but I’m not sure. I’d say a better (or at least less overt) description would be ‘sensual’. It’s outstandingly rich in color and texture. It’s delicate and tender, flowery and colorful, but at times thunderous and handsome, really breathtakingly so. The music is exactly ‘fragrant’, so (musically) layered, with whiffs of this and that, all compressed down into one large, flowing body of beautiful music, for a three-minute movement that can make you weak in the knees.

And then… click… clack… bam, the second movement enters, or rather we kind of overflow into it, without pause. It’s chirpy, exciting, lively, buzzing with ecstatic energy in almost exact contrast to the first movement while still managing to exist in the same sound world, full of florid, dense, yet never overpowering detail. If the first movement was marked by an almost languid luxuriance and sensuality, this second movement is marked by an ecstatic exuberance, an almost exhausting passion and pianism.

But the real kicker to this stunning pair of contrasting, almost disparate elements, is where the theme from the slow first movement is used to wrap up the second movement and the piece as a whole, tying these two elements together, leaving that final detail until the end, like the climax of a story, the solving of a mystery to bind everything together in the drama’s concluding moments.

I feel like this work might just be a fantastic gateway to Scriabin’s language. It’s late enough in his output that it bears Scriabin’s distinct language, not just in (what he would later do with) harmonies, but in the overt ornateness and complexity of his music. I’m (very much) not a pianist, but even listening to the music, it’s clearly very busy, very dense, and having a look at the scores of the later sonatas shows music (still for two hands!) on three or even four staves.

However, this work is brief, sumptuously Romantic and vivid, a good way to warm up to what is unique about Scriabin while still seeing his clear connections to what came before him. It’s a dense work, and is over quickly, but that’s no reason, as we have seen, to dismiss it or see it as a through-composed or monothematic work (even if the first movement is so.)

Sound and texture and sheer pleasure aside, we see Scriabin working toward something important musically, and it’s technical stuff like this that might be overlooked by a more casual listener. The two-movement sonatas (or at least this one) can be seen as a mid-point between the far more traditional fully-formed four-movement works and the historical breakthrough milestone that Scriabin reaches with his fifth sonata, but between now and then, get lost in this work, relish its 8 minutes of sheer beauty (a few times) and enjoy a few of the smaller pieces we’ll do before we get to the big breakthrough. Stay tuned.

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