Russian Recital

Recorded in Subotica Town Hall, 1997, featuring Scriabin's 3rd sonata, Vers La Flamme, Rachmaninoff's 2nd sonata plus works by Medtner & Balakirev

  • “... a vague and quite Russian feeling of contempt for everything conventional, artificial, and human - for everything the majority of men regard as the greatest good in the world... this strange and fascinating feeling... that wealth, power and life... all that men so painstakingly acquire and guard - if it has any worth has so only by reason of the joy with which it can all be renounced. It is the feeling that induces a volunteer recruit to spend his last penny on drink, and a drunken man to smash mirrors and glasses, for no apparent reason and knowing that it will cost him all the money he possesses: the feeling which causes a man to perform actions which from an ordinary point of view are insane, to test, as it were, his personal power and strength, affirming the existence of a higher, non-human criterion of life.”

    For the most part, the music on this CD is thoroughly Russian. It speaks of a land, a people governed by values profoundly different from our own. It reflects the life of a culture which hasn’t yet lost something indefinable yet essential, something which Western ‘civilization’ seems often so insidiously, so easily to have destroyed. It is colourful, deeply emotional music. Nothing pale, nothing half-hearted. Whatever is felt, be it joy or sorrow, is felt to the uttermost depths. And in some way, this music lends sense to the perplexing yet attractive passage from Tolstoi quoted above.

    Aleksandr Scriabin

    - Sonata #3 in F sharp minor: Drammatico


    - Sonata #3 in F sharp minor: Allegretto


    - Sonata #3 in F sharp minor: Andante


    - Sonata #3 in F sharp minor: Presto con Fuoco


    Vers la Flamme, Op. 72: Allegro moderato


    The works of the two most important late Russian Romantics, Sergei Vasiliyevitch Rahmaninov (1873 - 1943) and Alexandr Nikolayevitch Skryabin (1872-1915) share these national characteristics: strong emotional expression, distinctive harmonic flavour, fervent, fecund, melodic invention. Yet there are differences. Skryabin the mystic, of Russia yet always striving for something not only beyond Russia but beyond this world altogether. Rahmaninov, ironically the one forced to leave Russia at the height of his compositional powers, remaining rooted deeply in his motherland both spiritually and stylistically. The ecstasy and despair of intense spiritual struggle were almost like a drug for Skryabin; Rahmaninov spoke in the language of a more human, flesh-and-blood emotional palette. Where Skryabin’s scores are littered with directions intended toward graphic evocations of explicit inner states, Rahmaninov preferred merely to imply a drama of inner emotional states through purely musical means: the art was in the unspoken communication.

    From Alexandr Skryabin’s personal diaries, this first quote presumably addressed to God:

    “I thank you for all the fears which your trials and tribulations aroused. You made me know my endless power, my unlimited might, my invincibility. You gave me the power of creativity.

    ‘Mighty is he who feels defeat and overcomes it!

    ‘Religious feeling is an awareness of the divine in oneself… prayer is an élan towards God.

    ‘Like the word of Christ, As the deed of Prometheus, I clothed thee, O world of mine, With a single glance, And by my one thought.”

    Nikolai Medtner

    Fairy Tale Op 10 #3 in E minor: Allegro


    Fairy Tale Op 27 #3 in F minor: Andante


    Fairy Tale Op 27 No 2 in E flat major: Presto


    Mili Balakirev

    Dumka: Andante


    The word dumka, from the Russian dumati, to think, here suggests rumination along classic Russian lines - on the emptiness of existence, the absolute futility of any action etc. The musical form is a type of Slavonic folk ballad, alternately elegiac and madly gay. Unlike Tchaikovsky’s popular composition of the same name, Balakirev’s Dumka is virtually unknown even in the land of its composer. Unjust neglect indeed… Notice the figuration in the interludes ( ) which will provide the model for the closing measures of the Rahmaninov sonata’s first movement… The Folk Tales of Nikolai Medtner also exude Russian nostalgia and atmosphere, but mitigated by the influence of Medtner’s German ancestry. In The Knight’s March he revels in various contrapuntal practices, first presenting two contrasting themes (0:01, 1:33), then combining them contrapuntally (2:18), in augmentation (2:53) and finally in a stretto fugato which rises in chromatic sequence (3:12)! This tour de force culminates with a graphic depiction of the left, right, left, right footsteps of the knight’s inexorable progress (3:43)… In the opening theme of Op. 23 #3, the 2nd 0:09) and 3rd (0:14) phrases are fragments of phrase #1 in harmonic sequence, and the 4th (0:18) is an exact inversion of phrase #1! Op. 23 #2 is perhaps the least¬-Russian sounding work presented here, a light, humorous romp with an energetic final flourish.

    Sergei Rachmaninoff

    Sonata No 2 in B flat minor: Allegro


    Sonata No 2 in B flat minor: Andante


    Sonata No 2 in B flat minor: Allegro con brio


    Prelude in G sharp minor Op 32 No 11: Allegro


    Prelude in G major Op 32 No 5: Andante cantabile


    Aleksandr Scriabin

    Etude in D sharp minor Op 8 No 12: Allgero


Sergei Rahmaninov composed two piano sonatas, the mammoth D minor Op. 28 and the B flat minor Op. 36. Both are generally not recognized as masterworks - the first seldom played because of its 40 minutes-plus length and extreme technical difficulty, the second relegated by critics to second-rate music which only Horowitz could redeem with a much more than first-rate performance. In fact, the B flat minor Sonata’s motivic economy and ingenious use of orchestral colours, its highly evolved and yet apparently free compositional process, its richness of texture and expression all mark it as one of Rahmaninov’s unacknowledged masterpieces. Op. 36 stands as the most convincing evidence that Rahmaninov was anything but an anachronism of the Romantic era, a far greater and more modern composer than the hack spinner of movie melodies so many believe him to be.

Rahmaninov criticized the ‘modern’ music of his day as lacking the crucial element, heart (of Skryabin, however, he said, “Now there’s an exception!”), yet his compositional process, while certainly not lacking in heart, does employ many innovations of 20th century compositional practice. His intense chromaticism is a well-known stylistic feature, and particularly in the 2nd Sonata his use of substitution tones and unusual modal flavours brings his music at times to the brink of atonality, for instance in the ‘pealing bells’ section of the first movement (6:19). As well, in the 2nd Sonata he often uses motivic development in a series of shifting, contrasting textures instead of full-fledged thematic development.

Also prominent in Rahmaninov’s tonal spectrum are many bell sounds. The composer wrote, “The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know – Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave. All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love of bells is inherent in every Russian…” In the 2nd Sonata Rahmaninov evokes many moods with bell sounds, from the first movement’s thunderous, cataclysmic return to the opening theme (6:30) to the pathetically pealing of a single high tone in the slow movement ( ).

The dramatic intensity of the 2nd Sonata is achieved through economical thematic means. The sonata is constructed on a thematic cell, a descending chromatic scale ending with a quick leap down a fourth. From the moment this is announced in a flurry of sound (0:07) it permeates the whole work, appearing in various guises as the composer creates atmospheres of feeling through changing textural sonorities. This motive has something of a ‘Fate’ quality to it (think for instance of the opening moments of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony) yet it also contains strange echoes of Skryabin’s ‘desire’ motive, lending it a passionate intensity that could be even sexual. Even its dotted falling fourth closing flourish (0:09) is an inversion of the motto from Skryabin’s Op. 23!

Rahmaninov’s first piano sonata, the D minor, Op. 28 is based on the Faust legend: first movement Faust and his Fate, second movement Faust and Marguerite, third movement Faust and Mephistopheles. The Faust legend in its own way (of course in a manner more traditional than Skryabin’s super-concentrated mysticism) also blends the themes of sex and God. The strange resemblances to the super-eroticized themes of Skryabin noted above lead to the question: could Op. 36 be another Faust? Then one might perceive the opening fanfare as a feminine exclamation (0:03) followed by the masculine demand, insistent, powerful yet pleading (0:07), three times the exchange, then finally woman singing her desire, her passion (0:39), the ensuing dialogue (0:50), the mounting excitement (1:05), a game of chase (1:40) leading to the haunting 2nd theme (2:08): a melancholic, lonely call across the vast Russian steppes, again constructed on a chromatic falling figure smacking, of course, of desire… Questionable, perhaps – but not completely out of the question!

In the tender, serene Lento the descending scale idea is incorporated into a mild, rocking barcarolle theme, but this is suffused with an underlying fervour so intense that it too must eventually erupt in a passionate improvisation on the sonata’s thematic cell (Rahmaninov’s desire motive?) ( ) before returning to an intense, heartfelt intimacy. In the Allegro molto it is again transformed into an orgiastic, glass-smashing Cossack dance (0:10), technically brilliant and difficult, which shows no sign of letting up until the thematic cell again interrupts (1:05), leading to the second theme, one of the most beautiful lyric themes in all Rahmaninov’s oeuvre (1:33). Does this mad dash paint Mephisto’s entrance, or could it be a joyous extravaganza of two lovers now past the suffering, painful aspect of desire, now exulting in the fullness of their relation? Whatever the hidden program, through the Finale’s ensuing development (2:51), recapitulation (3:52) with its full-orchestra sonic extravaganza repeat of the second theme (4:45) (note the structural similarity to the finale of Skryabin’s Op.23) and brilliant coda (5:45), the energy and excitement mounts, culminating in an triumphant eruption of technical and sonic brilliance.

After Rachmaninov shortened and simplified Op. 36 in 1931, he allowed Vladimir Horowitz to restore much of the original material leaving only some revisions intact. After Rahmaninov’s death Horowitz continued to experiment. For example, his brilliant stroke of substituting a rising chromatic bass line for the original tonic pedal in the final bars (5:54) appears only on his 1979 recording. He also reworks much of the passagework of the third movement, emendations which appear in neither Rahmaninov text. I base my performance mainly on the last of the Horowitz reworkings, with a few additional modifications by myself.

The well-known ‘encores’ need little commentary. Rahmaninov’s G sharp minor prelude, op. 32 #11, always puts me in mind of a short sentence from Thomas and Olga de Hartmann’s Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff, “Some days later the ship sailed and we left Russia, not suspecting that it would be forever.” Following Rahmaninov’s G major prelude, delicate and intimately lyrical, our program comes full circle with Skryabin’s Op. 8 #12, an etude in legato playing both for the right hand melody in octaves and the left hand accompaniment figuration with its nimble thumb movements. This performance attempts to highlight the work’s tragic, singing quality, too often neglected by players of the “racket in D sharp minor.”

more text from the album booklet...

The young Scriabin

A rare photograph of Scriabin as a young adult
- given to Alan Fraser by the composer's great-grand nephew, Alexander Scriabin

Faubion Bowers, in his excellent biography accuses Skryabin of megalomania, delusions of grandeur evident in such statements as “I am God” and “I create the world as I glance upon it”. But if (as G. I. Gurdjieff notes) there exists knowledge which cannot be apprehended in normal states of consciousness, then Skryabin’s so-called egomaniacal statements merely indicate the higher level of psychical intensity required in any true creative act -- an act which accesses knowledge or information direct from God or the collective unconscious. He who plunges into this higher level but does not create, we call a madman. The creative process requires the same plunge, done with tremendous courage and presence of mind. It demands the risk of one’s sanity in order to create! Skryabin expressed his awareness of the absolutely subjective nature of perception: through the organization into sensible patterns of the myriad sensations we receive, we indeed create our world from moment to moment. If Skryabin does not see me, then for his senses I really do not exist!

Bowers questions whether it is possible to mix philosophy and composition, and says that Beethoven diminishes philosophy with his statement, “When I open my eyes and breathe, I know that music is a far higher revelation than any wisdom or philosophy”. But surely this indicates that Beethoven, and Skryabin in his turn, were philosophers of the highest order. Skryabin himself said, “I can’t understand how to write only ‘music’ now. How uninteresting it would be. Music, surely, takes on idea and significance when it is linked to one, single plan with the whole of a world-viewpoint. People just ‘writing music’ are like performers ‘just playing music.’ They are only to be valued when they are a link in the general plan. Music is the path of revelation. You can’t imagine how potent a method of knowledge it is! If you only knew how much I have learned through music! All I now think and say, I know from my composing.”

Skryabin’s Sonata #3 in F sharp minor, Op. 23 which culminates his early Romantic period, is suffused with affirmation, striving, passion. Boris Schloezer, Skryabin’s brother-in-law, said of this work: “Skryabin became aware of himself... He had to bring into full consciousness the liberating joy he had found within... This joy lived deep within his soul, and it could not bear the light of day. It flickered, then went out... Skryabin was one of the few who summoned an ancient god from within the depths of his being and gave external consciousness to it”.

Skryabin himself appended a literary program to the sonata, “States of Soul”:

“I: The free, untamed Soul plunges passionately into an abyss of suffering and strife”.

“II: The Soul, weary of suffering, finds illusory and transitory respite. It forgets itself in song, in flowers. But underneath the false veil of fragrant harmonies and light rhythms this vitiated and uneasy Soul still suffers...”.

“III: The Soul floats on a tender and melancholy sea of feeling, amongst the wraithlike charms of Love, sorrow, secret desires, inexpressible thoughts”.

“IV: Now the elements unleash themselves. The Soul struggles within their vortex of fury. As the storm reaches its climax, suddenly the voice of the Man-God rises up from within the Soul’s depths. The song of victory sounds triumphantly. But it is weak still… When all is within its grasp, it sinks back, broken, falling into a new abyss of nothingness.”

Thus in the first movement a literal battle is waged between the upper and lower registers, the bass insisting on its proud, martial call to arms (a characteristic motive of Skryabin’s which is to become the motto for the sonata), while the treble spins its soulful, striving melody in juxtaposition. This dialogue could also be seen as between “masculine” and “feminine”, conceivably even implying the cries of a woman locked in the ecstatic embrace of her masculine suitor, or alternately perhaps as an internal dialogue, between disparate elements of the human psyche. Subsequent thematic materials provide some relief from the suffering and strife, as the polyphonic lower registers support a lyrical second theme melody ( ), and the antagonists even engage in a friendly third theme game of tag ( ). Finally the first theme, transformed into an optimistic F sharp major ( ), is set against its foil, the gentler second theme ( ): the former musical adversaries now live in harmony. The intensity of the battle rises through the movement’s development, until the Soul, proving itself equal to all challenges, finally revels in a full-blown expression of its power ( ). The recapitulation draws to a close with one more glorious statement of victory, a last triumphant unification of the disparate psychical elements, a first taste of approaching bliss. I have chosen to repeat the first movement exposition as in traditional sonata practice: I feel the monumental structure of this movement is actually improved by the expansion; and I love the work’s feeling of exultation so much I could not resist the opportunity of prolonging it ( )!

In subsequent movements the sonata’s upward leaping motto is transformed to evoke different ideas: in the scherzo second movement, it becomes a restless, march-like left hand accompaniment, cautioning us that the conflict still lurks under the surface calm. Indecisive, searching harmonies ( ) also contribute to the feeling of false repose, continued dissatisfaction.

In the third movement Andante we achieve true bliss as Skryabin, sublime and ecstatic, spins one of his most eloquent melodies. Yet even here all is not complete rest: the rhythmic element of the battle call motto is preserved in a bell-motive ( ): the Soul’s power never dissipates completely, not even in moments of blissful stasis. In the recapitulation the subtle series of underlying accompanying sighs intensify the feeling of desire and longing ( ), until finally the masculine element responds with “his” rendition of the divine song ( )... All falls to stasis, peace, bliss. The sonata’s motto returns softly in the major ( ), at first replete with meaning, fulfillment. Then as a transformation occurs in the other direction, from major to minor ( ), the realization slowly dawns: this was only a pause before the plunge into the vortex of the finale.

Here the battle call motive finally appears in the treble ( ), linked to a grotesquely transformed cantabile second theme from the first movement now extended chromatically downward. This new hybrid theme, sickly, threatening and devilish in character, is set over a manically surging and fiendishly difficult left hand figuration. This hellish movement, replete with its struggle between dark and light, good and evil, God and the Devil, seems to grow out of Skryabin’s contention that “to be an optimist in the real sense, one must have suffered despair and triumphed over it.” Yet at the final cadence, after a glorious ff apotheosis of the blissful third movement theme ( ), and one last momentary glimpse of hope ( ), dark wins out over light in dramatic, abrupt fashion. Schloezer comments: “In short, this is the tragedy of a personality unable to bear his own deification into the Man-God. At the very moment he sounds his song of triumph he sinks into the abyss. The world is deserted. The winds blow the dust even of supermen into space.”

Skryabin’s work subsequent to Op. 23 shows a quantum transformation, to his mature, ecstatic style. The music of Vers la Flamme Op. 72 has evolved light years from the Romanticism of the 3rd Sonata, into a mystical, super-concentrated emotional expression and synthetic tonality. One of his last works, Vers la Flamme is as misunderstood as anything Skryabin ever wrote. Even Vladimir Horowitz comments, “This is psychedelic music dealing with the mysterious forces of fire and the atom that can destroy all of humanity. Skryabin previewed a vision of the atom bomb.”, and the maestro adds massive, explosive basses and octave doublings to prove his point. But surely the flame is spiritual in nature, with the potential to redeem rather than destroy humanity, desire both constituting the flame and fueling one’s journey towards it.

Whereas the 3rd sonata begins with an exultant, powerful, affirming upward surge, Vers la Flamme’s opening motive questions tentatively in sighs plangent with dolorous, unfulfilled longing. The work’s thematic cell, a single two-note falling motive ( ) is a cogent and potent expression of desire, be it sexual or spiritual in nature. The ‘desire’ motive, initially dark and lethargic, only later grows in power and intensity until it is singing, sweet, electric white and intense, swimming, flying in a sea of turbulence and foaming activity -- “I sing the body electric” ( ). The directions in the score clearly indicate Skryabin’s intentions: we move from “sombre” (dark) ( ) to “avec une emotion naissante” (with a nascent emotion) ( ) to “avec une joie voilee” (with a veiled joy) ( ) to “avec une joie de plus en plus tumultueuse” (with a joy more and more tumultuous) ( ) to “eclatant, lumineux, ff ma dolce” (clangorous, luminous, fortissimo but sweet) ( ).

For Skryabin religious feeling and, physical, passionate love were linked rather than separated, ecstasy being the common denominator. All is synthesis: matter and energy, carnal and spiritual love. The flame may be the energy of the atom, but even the quantum physicists now tell us that matter and spirit are one. Although Vers la Flamme’s development of the single desire motive could be seen to portray the mounting excitement of a woman sensing and responding to the insistence of her protagonist, culminating in the tremulous vibrato and excited, half-desperate cries of approaching delirium ( ), the inner mounting flame could equally be one of religious, mystically fervent joy. Skryabin himself makes a connection: “Early in my life, in Paris, I led an extremely corrupt life. I tried everything… I drowned myself in pleasures, and was put to the test by them. Without this there is no triumph… I have known since then that the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act… Maximum creativity, maximum eroticism…”

The 3rd sonata opens in exultation but ends in annihilation, as if the young Skryabin could not handle the mystical fires he had discovered. But the energies which earlier consumed him have become agreeable food for the mature composer of Vers la Flamme. No more the abyss: in Vers la Flamme Skryabin soars ever higher, ever closer to his Creator, to the Source.