By Elijah Ho: October 20, 2016
In 1939, composer Virgil Thomson brought attention to a growing problem in classical music. Despite a dire need for the presentation of new works, orchestras around the globe clung desperately to certain classics “tyrannically,” as he wrote in a 1944 essay, and at the expense of others.
Unfortunately, most would say little has changed since. The “50 pieces” Thomson mocked play on and on.
This Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 22 and 23, however, at the California Theater in San Jose, Symphony Silicon Valley will present a largely forgotten work of brilliance and uncommon beauty: Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor, performed by virtuoso pianist Nikolai Demidenko. (Edvard Tchivzhel conducts Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony in E minor to complete the program.)
Few people know just why certain pieces of music enter the classical canon and others of similar ilk are left to collect dust — or merely the attentions of aficionados. For every Beethoven, there is a Johann Nepomuk Hummel; for every Chopin, a Charles-Valentin Alkan; and so on.
And then, there is the curious case of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), a classmate of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Like Rachmaninoff or Frédéric Chopin, the bulk of Scriabin’s output is for the piano. The prodigious Russian was fascinated by the Polish master, and composed largely in the same forms: polonaises, mazurkas, études, preludes, sonatas, etc. But to pigeonhole Scriabin as a mere modern incarnation of Chopin is an injustice both to him and to musical progress.
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, winner of the 1970 International Chopin Competition, believes Scriabin, like Chopin, had an authentic genius for thinking about music at the piano.
“Scriabin is the most underplayed of all of our really great composers,” Ohlsson tells me from his home in San Francisco. “If you ask any trained musician, it is beyond discussion that Scriabin is one of the great composers at the turn of the century, in the company of Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Stravinsky. Like Beethoven, he went after a wide variety of states, moods and emotional issues, and I wouldn’t say his output is uneven.”
While the concertos of Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninoff are certainly among what we would now call the “50 pieces,” Scriabin’s remains nowhere to be found on most concert calendars, even a century after his death. And yet consensus dictates that the work is ravishingly beautiful, and inspired by genius.
“I think it’s wonderful that this piece is being heard. It’s very, very worthy, and it shows off the pianist beautifully,” says Ohlsson, whose 1986 recording of the concerto, with the Czech Philharmonic, should not be missed. “People very often expect that the Scriabin Concerto will be like Rachmaninoff’s Second or Third, but it’s a more introspective, poetic piece — maybe too poetic, dreamy. The thematic material in the Allegro, while beautiful and inspired, is very fundamentally lyric rather than dramatic.”
Kirill Gerstein, winner of the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein Competition, performed the concerto earlier this month with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Gerstein first heard the work as a six-year-old, performed by the great Dmitri Bashkirov. He never forgot the experience, and later studied it with Bashkirov, whose recording is another standard.
“One of the issues is it requires real rehearsing, which is not always available in today’s musical life,” offered Gerstein from Germany. “Not to scare any potential orchestras and conductors, but it’s not ideal to rehearse this piece just once. There is a lot of rubato, and the orchestra can get a bit thick and unwieldy with the changes of mood and tempo, which happen together with the pianist. However, these shouldn’t prevent the Scriabin Concerto from being more popular because many pieces have these difficulties.”
The concerto, Opus 20 (1896), was written not long before Scriabin’s transformation as a composer. He would later believe he was the Messiah, and the concerto’s Andante is one of the most heaven-bound, tender creations of the piano literature.
“The second movement is like a dream, full of inspiration and belief in itself,” says Gerstein. “There’s the incredibly beautiful introduction, and the first variation is just a breath of fresh air, like when you open a window on a winter evening and air flows into the room. I think it’s an absolutely beautiful moment. Bashkirov told me that with early Scriabin, which resembles Rachmaninoff’s musical language, it shouldn’t sound like anything Rachmaninoff could have written. It has its own sound world and flavor — it’s less opulent, more piercing, more nervous.”
The composer’s nervousness, along with a mercurial and ecstatic energy — central features of his later works — can be found in an evolved state by Opus 32. But one can already detect the germ of evolution in the Allegro moderato of Opus 20.
“It’s unbelievably, insanely beautiful,” says Demidenko, Saturday’s featured soloist, and another Bashkirov pupil. “It is a world you never thought about. To perform it adequately, you have to be ready for challenges, and there are thousands. Eighty percent of the difficulties are in the left hand, as Scriabin’s right hand was injured at its composition. The concerto requires a very special conductor, as the work has rubato all the way through. In one section, the tempo changes four times in one line of text! This is why the Scriabin concerto is not played more often.”
In spite of musical and extramusical problems, Scriabin’s sole concerto may be his apex, the flower of a most unique, underplayed 20th century musical genius.
“It is a work of greater value than his symphonies,” Demidenko contends. “It doesn’t have the new harmonic language of his later years, but what it does have is incredible intensity, and that is Scriabin. The ending just flies away to enormous heights, and Scriabin takes you with it. For young pianists, if they consider climbing this Mount Everest of a work, the reward at the end is huge — and well worth it.”