Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Scriabin's Op 25 Mazurkas

Let's take a survey of these nine masterpieces. They have long been a fascination to me, as they always sound exotic yet very tonal and structured and there are instances of sheer piano colour, for ten seconds or shorter, that are unmatched anywhere in the piano repertoire, actually succeeding in taking off from where Chopin left off.

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), said to be the sui generis composer of all time, composed these nine pieces in Switzerland. They fall into what Scriabinists like to recall as the end of his first period. Some even contend that Scriabin was a decent enough composer in much of this tremendous first period and that many of those pieces are easier to get across to audiences than much of his later works. But they remain unique as to what they ask of the pianist and the tricks they play on audiences. Those fond of finding form in unfamiliar music will be surprised even shocked by the elements Scriabin uses. The wikipedia article on Scriabin gives a good description musically concerning this first period.

A mazurka was a dance form from Poland that was of course used by Chopin. But Scriabin's mazurkas are structurally bigger, though some use amazingly slight resources. One hears elements derived from ethnic traditions beyond Poland too, all delivered as if in reflection. This is music almost for surreal dancing or dream dancing rather than dancing by real warm flesh and blood human beings. So yes, much of this music has been characterized as dark, downcast, disturbing (#1, #3, #5, #9), but then just as easily there are shafts of tremendous light, brilliance, tenderness (#2,#6,#8).

First, let's get familiar with the music by hearing them all payed through. Here's Samuil Feinberg playing them:

Scriabin Mazurkas Op 24 (1-9 complete) 

Now let's consider each one. The first is in f minor and is marked Allegro. It is played here by Elena Doubovitskaya. She plays it almost exactly as I played it when I had this one down. 

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #1

The second in C major marked Allegretto evokes some kind of picture in musical terms of a flirtation, perhaps an exchange of flirtations. These emotions saturate the main theme, whereas the incidental theme contains suggestions of a bleak opposite. The recording I've chosen showcases a Knabe 6'2” grand from 1892, possibly rebuilt. Ryan Layne Whitney certainly plays it as I did when I had this one under my fingers. Lovely.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #2 

A lot of people play the gloomy third Mazurka in e minor marked Lento. It's short, can be played to affect a mood of high tension, always a pretty easy to grasp piece. It adequately demonstrates Scriabin's power to set the mood, even if it's not a particularly calming or joyous one.  Here are a few versions: 

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 $3 
Played here by Vladimir Sofronitsky this is a classic Scriabin performance.
Played here by Margarita Glebov where she offers us an update on the classic interpretation.
Played here by Dmitry Melnikov for yet another interpretation.

The fourth in E major marked Vivo was the first I was ever aware of. Artur Pizarro plays it as indeed it must be played, slower than it seems marked to be played. This is a real nocturnal dreamlike dance, a dance for the mind or soul as much as ever for any bodies that would take up its gentle rhythms. The contrasting theme is hard and bitter, seconds of it reveal raw passion. When some people who don't know me ask what I think of when playing this one or any of them, I tell them ... something of a frankly adult nature.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #4 

The fifth in c# minor marked Agitato is indeed a kind of nobly agitated theme with contrasted to that a theme that's tenderness itself. As always, this piece is hazardous to interpret but Cameron Wilkins has succeeded.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #5 

The sixth mazurka in F# marked Allegro tells some quaint tale about some folksy gathering perhaps outside during warm sunny weather as spirits rise and dancing gets quite joyous. It's not without the insinuations of that which might be the opposite of all this, but it actually causes what's represented to hold more emotional depth thereby. Michal Direr plays it on some fairly ancient piano which still manages to hold a tune. 

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #6 

The seventh mazurka in f# minor reverts to a gloomier atmosphere and a yearning pleading element is added and this is contrasted with something a whole lot more confident and emphatic. Much of it owes structural and harmonic ideas to Chopin, but as it were extended into far more exotic places with deeper emotional intentions always implied. My, does Fran├žois Chaplin ever get this one! 

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #7
Played by Sergei Dreznin and includes Op 25 #8 as well.

The eighth was the least played in our survey. It's in B marked Moderato. It's another contemplative naturalistic and quaint piece. Again, the subtlest inferences with something always more significant and touching are always implied. The contrasting theme is right out of Chopin.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #8
includes Op 25 #7 as well.

The last one in e flat minor marked Mesto could be played as a kind of contemplative dirge, Sergei Dreznin likes to play it very slow. It kind of melts around when played this slow too.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #9 
Played by Sergei Dreznin

Now to complete our survey, here's a rendering of the last mazurka using what sounds like a kind of electronic orchestra or vast theatre organ.

Opus 25. No. 9, composed by: Alexander Scriabin.
"Steampunk" rendition Arranged, and produced by: Repent In Reprise.

I encourage as many pianists as possible to take up these works, maybe not all of them, because they are subtly rather difficult, but to strive to get some under your hands and into your hearts and minds too.

Best!

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