Thursday, November 08, 2007

Mystical experiences

There is something strangely satisfying about Alexander Scriabin’s music. His ideas and language are very much forward looking. He eschews the conservative paradigm contemporaries like Rachmaninoff clung to.  Nonetheless, Scriabin insisted on cramming his ideas into age old forms.

Of course, the “colorful” aspects of Scriabin’s life help fill out the personal context in which his music was formed. What’s not to love? Scriabin believed he could transmute sound waves into light waves and light waves back into sound waves. Scriabin’s friends drank cocktails of vodka, gunpowder, and congealed blood. Other friends skipped the gunpowder and vodka and just drank the blood but chased it with a chunk of human flesh. There was a logical reason for all of this grotesque behavior. Scriabin’s friends were trying to induce “mystical experiences.” If I had friends like Scriabin’s my life would be exponentially more interesting.

Last night, Yevgeny Sudbin was in town. On the program were two Scriabin sonatas. The second sonata and the devilish Black Mass sonata. Four of Scriabin’s youthful Mazurka’s also were on the program. For the first half, Sudbin dazzled the audience with a mix of Haydn, Medtner, and Chopin.

The first half of Wednesday’s recital was generally less interesting than the all Scriabin second half. As expected, Sudbin’s playing was crystalline. He played each piece with passion, enunciated each note, and drew out unexpected colors. The problem I had was Haydn’s Sonata No.30 and C Major Sonata filled up too much space on the program. I whispered my displeasure to my concert companion: “a little Haydn goes a long way.” Not even a committed performance of Medtner’s Remeniscenza Sonata could shake the funk. I agree with Vladamir Horowitz when he once asked “Why nobody plays Medtner?”

Fortunately, after a brief intermission, I was ready for Sudbin’s stab at Scriabin. To begin the half, Sudbin picked four of Scriabin’s mazurkas. Their innocence doesn’t begin to predict the sorcery that comes in the composer’s later works.

Two sonatas were chosen to close the recital. First Sudbin played the second sonata. The second is an attempt at impressionism. In Sudbin’s own notes he indicates it was inspired by three seas: the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean. Sudbin’s approach was lyrical and sensitive. The etude like second movement was no match for Sudbin's virtuosity. Listening to the performance its hard to believe the composer of the Mazurkas and the second sonata is the same person who was obsessed with the macabre and himself.

The Black Mass sonata is much different.

The music is fiendish and haunting. The language is dissonant. The complexity of the piece builds and builds, until it ends with a vigorous and startling conclusion. Through out, there are hints of birds twittering, wailing, and distorted marches. Sudbin’s range, touch and consideration of the rhythm prevented the piece for getting bogged down.

The Haydn heavy first half may have put me in a funk but the Scriabin second brought me close to ecstasy.  Sadly there were a lot of empty seats in Meaney Theater.  Next time Sudbin comes to town, maybe he'll show us how Scriabin turned sound into light.

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