Scriabin: Deux Poèmes, op. 32

performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy or below by Ivo Pogorelich

Two little things today, sketches from Scriabin, as if he’s working out ideas in preparation for something truly monumental.

The ‘two poems’ date from 1903, and are as follows:

  • No. 1 in F sharp major: Andante cantabile
  • No. 2 in D Major: Allegro con eleganza, con fiducia

An AllMusic reviewer describes these works in a short write-up as the moment (or some point thereafter) where Scriabin sloughs off all previous ‘keyboard tradition’ finally to be on the trajectory that the entire rest of his career would follow.

We discussed in yesterday’s article about the composer’s fourth piano sonata how Scriabin was clearly at work condensing and crystalizing how he would present the sonata form, and it’s well on its way to becoming a diamond, but we’re not there yet. It’s also more than just structure that the composer was redefining and reinventing.

His musical language, as we have seen in the past, was changing, moving in a new direction, and we can see it here. If Scriabin’s previous sonatas evoked Chopin without sounding like Chopin, then the first poem evokes Debussy without sounding like Debussy, or rather without sounding derivative, as Scriabin’s highly individual language is still at the forefront.

Say the word languid. Or languish. Or ennui. Those words feel, rolling off the tongue, the way this piece sounds, and their meaning is not far off, although ennui might be a bit lifeless or torpid for the supple, rolling sounds of this first poem. There’s an atmosphere that seems to come from somewhere other than the notes being played, one which emanates from the piano, a fragrance of unfresh flowers, leather, and perhaps the faintest hint of the ocean in the distance, all on a cool night with the windows open. It undulates and rolls, without ever really seeming to complete a statement. It’s the nonverbal communication between two very familiar souls of piano music, simply an expression unto itself.

There is a contrast here, though, and it comes in the form of the second poem. While we’re here, let’s talk about this ‘poem’ idea. In some cases, a poem tells a complete story, with many verses, characters, repeating ideas, a plot and tension and all the rest, but in others, it’s nothing more than a four-line stanza or two expressing something beautifully inconsequential and minuscule as the way the petal of a flower falls from its perch to rest on the shiny wooden table below, or the way the creak of a door breaks a musty silence. They are their very own raisons d’être. 

So our second poem does bring us a contrast to the first, but I’m not sure that’s intended, as they’re two poems, not two verses of a poem. The first is longer, with Ashkenazy’s recording coming in at three minutes and some change, and the second at less than two minutes. It begins by shattering entirely the atmosphere of the former work, expressing the exact opposite of the first poem. There’s a brightness and unabashed headstrong nature to this work, and it could be alternatively interpreted as an almost overwhelmingly ebullient optimism, or as an explosion of undirected and goalless frustration that will soon pass, the way one flies into a fit of rage and expletives about needing to be out the door but unable to find your keys. The “oh, there they are” moment is disarming and everything goes right back to normal. But I’m not inclined to hear this explosion as one of fiery fury, but sunny bright yellow and orange optimism or passion, but it’s over equally as fast, and as if nothing happened, the undirected forward energy of the poem is extinguished uneventfully, and all that’s left is the fragrance of smoke in the air.

The significant thing, I think, is the taste that this leaves on one’s palate after it’s all over. It reminds me strongly of something else we’ll see later this week, as if it’s a small-scale test, a prototype of how a crazy idea of the composer might sound once it comes to life off the paper, and it should be an indication that there are great things to come, so stay tuned.

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