Thursday, May 15, 2008 | “Holy sh—!” Alexander Scriabin can provoke that response.
Other reactions might be somewhat less profane, and some outright hostile. “He can divide a room,” said pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who will perform a mostly-Scriabin program on Friday night to close La Jolla Music Society’s season.
Ohlsson said that when he plays Scriabin’s music, people are at least surprised and often ask, “Who is this guy?” Ohlsson described Scriabin as “a wacky mainstream composer.”
Easy enough. Now listen to Ohlsson talking about Friday’s program. The pianist has designed it around the second, fifth and tenth sonatas to show Scriabin’s development. Each is about 12 minutes long, and between them, Ohlsson squeezes in some shorter works.
Scriabin was 20 when he wrote the Second Sonata in G-sharp minor (“Sonata-Fantasy”). This one is “the most sensuous, lavish, and delicate. It’s dreamy beyond belief, an incredible sensuous reverie.,” said Ohlsson, in a phone interview from his home in Indianapolis.
In his mid-30s, in 1907, Scriabin wrote the Fifth Sonata. By then, he had jettisoned key signatures, the starting point for listening to a piece. In Ohlsson’s word, the “ecstatic, orgasmic” fifth is “sheer electric erotic excitement. It goes from suberranan to stratospheric in about three seconds.” Finally, the Tenth Sonata, from 1913, “is all nerve endings,” Ohlsson said. “Wow! Just listen to it as a moment to moment expositon of weird ideas.”
Identifying Scriabin’s music is sometimes like playing Charades, when you cup your hand to your ear for the clue “sounds like.” For Scriabin, the answer can be Chopin, Debussy, or Gershwin. In his early works, Scriabin can sound like Chopin. Still, Scriabin retains an absolute signature, which Ohlsson described as “a high strung, nervous, ecstatic, morbidly sensitive, mystical voice.”
So who is this guy?
In life, Scriabin was a Russian mystic, from a country that adores mystics (remember Rasputin). He once declared, “I am God” and insisted he could walk on water and make his body fly across a room. He was not institutionalized. Scriabin was a little guy, right around five feet tall, and lusty, fathering several children with a wife and a younger mistress. He spent only a few years outside Russia, living in Europe and visiting the United States.
At 16, the delicate young Scriabin arrived at the Moscow Conservatory to study with the senior piano teacher Vassily Safonov. But Safonov admitted he had nothing to teach the teenager, because Scriabin knew everything, most importantly, “how to make the piano sound not like a piano.”
Scriabin quickly began producing compositions that reached into the stratosphere. Among other things, Scriabin was trying to unite the senses. He might have had synesthesia, experiencing music as color. When he was just 19 he devised an elaborate “keyboard” of color-sound associations.
In 1915, Scriabin was working on “Mysterium,” a massive orchestral work that brought together music, color, smell and dance. The performance — in the Himalayas — would last a week. But he died that year, at the age of 43 (apparently when a pimple on his lip became infected).
In short, before Russia’s political revolution shook the world, Scriabin was among the Russian composers whose revolutionary music ricocheted out of the late Imperial period. Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev: they took music to the brink before Germans like Webern and Schoenberg tossed it into atonality.
Scriabin nearly fell off the radar in the mid-twentieth century. Today, the world seems to have caught up with him, and most pianists and orchestras include his music on their playlists.
Scriabin’s biographer, Faubion Bowers, wrote that Safonov’s initial comment on the young composer, held for a lifetime: “He worked for non-piano effects, to make the piano a kind of celestial orchestra of unearthly sounds. His first task was, invariably, how to defy the piano’s laws.” The music is also a workout for a piano, and Ohlsson will play the concert on a new Steinway that he helped LJMS choose.
As he pushed musical ideas, Scriabin needed to figure out how to maintain the piano’s sound, which normally dissipates quickly, even with the pedal. On the keyboard, he used trills, running scales, and other techniques to create effects of sound and light.
For his new musical architecture, Scriabin shifted sounds into new relationships, with interlocking tritones, that is, groups of notes related to traditional keys. He relied on what he called a “mystical chord,” composed of six notes that might appear complete or in fragmented form.
Scriabin did not believe in a distinction between harmony and melody; he called harmony “melody furled” and melody “harmony unfurled.” Gone were the key signatures that suggested the organization of the musical material.
Directions for mood and metric notation change several times over a few measures. Scriabin might start the piece like the tenth sonata with a conventional direction in Italian — moderato — but the performer immediately runs into added details, often in French — trés doux et pur (very sweet and pur) or avec une ardeur profonde et voilée (with deep and delicate passion).
Given Scriabin’s creative power and his mystical goals, one can only wonder what he would have done with electronica, digital effects, light shows, the internet and other technologies. Ohlsson said that electronic and pop music have grown out of Scriabin, who kept developing tonal music into its own breakup but not in the same direction as Schoenberg and others.
Although some of Scriabin’s music sounds rambling, he was Mozartean in his meticulous compositions. “I write in strict style. . . there’s nothing by accident,” he wrote.
Ohlsson said that the tenth sonata is especially tautly constructed, even though it sounds like stream of consciousness, so modern that people are astounded that it’s 100 years old. “His craft was complete and perfect; he controlled all his elements, but it doesn’t sound that way,” Ohlsson said.
Scriabin’s discipline is a formidable challenge, and anyone who tackles it must get above the technical difficulties to reach the music. “When you play, you need iron control and total abandon at the same time. You want to give yourself to the wildness but can lose emotional cool,” Ohlsson said.
Scriabin’s music is “sometimes demonically exciting. You are possessed by the composer; the music is playing you.” Even in the soft, intimate works, “you feel like you’re not playing the piano anymore but dipping your fingers into honey and perfume.”
Interspersed among the Scriabin works will be pieces by two of the composer’s admirers, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Prokofiev wrote his lovely Sonata No. 2 in D minor in 1914, when he was just 21; it’s masterful but tame compared to Scriabin’s tenth from the previous year. Rachmaninoff’s output slowed after 1918, when he fled Russia to settle in ths United States. But the “Variations on a Theme of Corelli,” written in 1931, show his vigorous experimentation.
Rachmaninoff and Scriabin graduated, respectively, first and second in their class at the Moscow Conservatory. Scriabin left his family penniless, and to raise money for them, Rachmaninoff toured Russia, for the first time playing concerts not of his own music but of his friend’s.
Rachmaninoff’s gesture illustrates the fierce love and loyalty Scriabin inspired. As a teenager, novelist Boris Pasternak spent some summers living next door to Scriabin who was then in his 30s. So taken was Pasternak with the music that he began a career as a composer. When Pasternak died in 1960, the pianist Sviataslov Richter spent all night in the room where the corpse rested, playing only Scriabin’s music.
The challenge for the audience is also formidable, as are the rewards for the attentive listener. Ohlsson played part of the La Jolla program in a sold out recital in New York in March. The audience was rambunctious, and before he struck a single note, Ohlsson asked for quiet from the audience then waited for coughing, chatting and program rustling to stop.
“I’ll wait, doesn’t make me nervous,” he said.
La Jolla Music Society presents Garrick Ohlsson playing music by Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, Fri., May, 16 at 8 pm. MCASD Sherwood Auditorium, La Jolla. Tickets: $75, $55, $25. To order, call (858) 459-3728; www.ljms.org.
As the 2008 winter season slides into a busy summer season, here are some promising concert selections this month. The chamber group Art of …lan concludes its inaugural season with “The Red Series,” an all-Asian program with works by Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Toru Takemitsu, Yi Wen Jiang and Chinary Ung, Tues., May 20, Hibben Gallery, San Diego Museum of Art, 7 p.m., www.sdmart.org; La Jolla Symphony Chorus presents Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” Sun. May 18, 7 p.m., without intermission, San Therese of Carmel Church, www.lajollasymphony.com. The San Diego Symphony’s season finale features pianist Horacio Gutierrez playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and the orchestra performing Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and Bright Sheng’s “The Nightingale and the Rose,” May 16 and 17 at 8 p.m. and May 18 at 2 p.m., Copley Symphony Hall, www.sandiegosymphony.com.