Ohlsson’s Mindblowing Scriabin

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SCRIABIN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-10. Fantasy in B min., Op. 28 / Garrick Ohlsson, pianist / Bridge 9468A/B

When I was growing up in the 1960s and early ‘70s, aside from the Established Big Name Pianists like Arrau, Rubinstein, Gould and Horowitz, the ones being promoted by RCA and Columbia were Van Cliburn (who I kind of liked but approached warily due to his rhetorical phrasing), Gary Graffman (whose playing I adored), John Ogdon (a little too eccentric for my taste, but I liked the way he played) and Garrick Ohlsson, a pupil of Arrau. I enjoyed some of what Ohlsson did, but sometimes found his phrasing (in those years) a bit dry and choppy. Thus I sort of lost touch with what he has been up to all these years.

Well, it turns out that he has developed into an outstanding pianist of great power, an exuberant sense of drama, and a way of playing the music of Scriabin—a fine composer, but one too often “psychoanalyzed” by pianists, his music taken to places he himself never went—almost as if he himself were the composer. No, I am NOT exaggerating. From the first notes of the Sonata No. 1, a work often played, like the following three sonatas, in a wispy, ethereal manner as if it were Chopin (the composer young Scriabin admired most…he used to go to sleep with Chopin scores under his pillow!), Ohlsson tears into it as if it were mature Scriabin, meaning with tensile strength, great drama and tremendous feeling. Moreover, this style proves particularly enlightening in the slow movements of these early sonatas. Here, Ohlsson gets so deeply into the music that I almost had the impression he was composing it, or at least was the composer himself playing it. And just listen to the way he digs into the third-movement “Presto,” already prefacing the almost sinister mood of Scriabin’s later work! This is music-making of an exceptionally high order, a way of approaching these sonatas from completely “inside” the music, as if both pianist and composer were seething with emotions that absolutely needed to get out.

Now, long-time readers of my reviews know that although I’ve come to appreciate other pianists’ performances of various sonatas, among them Horowitz, Vladimir Feltsman, Matthew Bengtson and Martin Tchiba, my favorite complete set of these works has always been the 1972 Ruth Laredo recordings for Nonesuch. But no more. Nearly everyone else now takes a back seat in my estimation to what Ohlsson has achieved here, and I assure you that this is not an exaggeration or the fading listening ability of an older woman. Ohlsson so often holds the music out to you, as if in the palm of his hand, cradling it like something very precious yet deeply meaningful to him, that you are astonished to realize that you have never heard some of these phrases in the same way before. Not only that, but all of these sonatas suddenly make sense. The complete set of them no longer sound like a pale Chopin imitation morphing into explosive, darkly dramatic works in the last five sonatas. Ohlsson even makes the occasional pauses in the music sound dramatic and meaningful. This is playing on a very high order. As a professional listener, my first inclination was to gauge how well Ohlsson played the music from a technical standpoint, which is very well indeed, but I quickly lost interest in analyzing his playing from that aspect and fell under the spell of what Scriabin was saying through Ohlsson’s fingers.

I should add, if you haven’t already picked up on it, that Ohlsson’s ability to work from inside the composer’s mind does not merely lead to dramatically explosive playing, but deeply sensitive playing as well. He weaves an almost magical spell in the first movement of the Sonata No. 2, the “Sonata Fantasy,” that I’ve never heard anyone else accomplish, and when he begins the “Presto” movement he almost sounds as if he is “creeping up” on the music, approaching it as a sort of moto perpetuo with dark and unusual turns of phrase and harmony. His technique as such never fails him, thus he is able to put it to use as a great painter, using his full palette of colors and subtle shades no matter how involved he is with the music emotionally.

The opening of the third sonata, marked “Drammatico,” is generally where most pianists (Laredo included) begin to play the music with more fire, but Ohlsson has been tapped into DC current from the beginning, thus this movement sounds just as dramatic as the opening of the first sonata (appropriately marked “Allegro con fuoco”). It’s little details like these that make for continuity in feeling as he moves from one sonata to the next. Now, I’m sure that make critics who want their early Scriabin to sound wispier and less dramatic will complain about this, assuring us that there was a stylistic evolution in Scriabin’s music. Well, of course there was; had he stayed in this early mode he’d probably be an interesting late-Romantic figure, not as highly prized as he is today. But just as I have never subscribed to the theory that early Scriabin needs to be gentler and more lyrical, I never felt that the early Beethoven sonatas needed to be played like Mozart, despite the fact that they were written in the 1780s and ‘90s and were thus conceived on smaller, less resonant keyboards. Some critics’ and musicologists’ fetishes with available instruments do not take what was in the composer’s mind and heart when he wrote the pieces. For this reason I have always preferred “meatier” interpretations of Beethoven’s first 10 sonatas like those of Artur Schnabel and Annie Fischer, rather than John O’Conor’s kinder, gentler approach (though O’Conor’s Beethoven sonata cycle is revelatory in many ways). Of course, in Scriabin’s lifetime there were very few improvements in keyboard instruments, thus the pianos he wrote the “White Mass” and “Black Mass” Sonatas on were pretty much the same instruments he wrote the early sonatas on, or at least close enough.

In addition to all this, Ohlsson’s technique is superb enough so that every thread of the music emerges as clear as a bell. He also manages to do something that very few pianists, except for Laredo and Bengtson, do, and that is to reveal the underlying structure of the music clearly. No longer does this music strike the ear as soft phrases followed by loudly-crashing ones, but rather as orderly compositions with an inner logic all their own. A critic for the Guardian in England, reviewing one of Ohlsson’s all-Scriabin concerts at Wigmore Hall in early 2015, complained that he defused the edgy drama of Scriabin in his pursuit of clarity and order. I didn’t find this to be the case at all, although certainly there were isolated moments in the later sonatas where I appreciated some of what Laredo and Horowitz did. But moments are not compositions, and for all their volcanic fire they did not convince me as well of the underlying structure or logic as Ohlsson continually does.

By the Fourth Sonata, Scriabin had found his chromatically-infused sense of harmony with its extended chord positions playing a central role in his music. Ohlsson captures all the mystery in the opening movement while not ignoring—again—its underlying structure.

There is a certain level of showmanship, or brinkmanship, in the way he handles the last five sonatas, all of which were conceived in single long movements. But that’s fine; I’ve long felt that Scriabin’s growing sense of self-importance (he conceived of his final work, Mysterium, as not only impressing music-lovers but of transforming the world into a single unit of peace and love) came out in his later music. Thus, any performances of the late sonatas or symphonies must, by definition, have a certain amount of external charisma about them in order to be effective. Here Ohlsson continues to approach the music as if he wrote it, finding and holding up this new way of listening to them more as a revelation of the composer than of himself.

Mind you, he achieves much of this extra clarity by playing the music slightly slower than most pianists, which is perhaps what caused the Guardian music critic to chastise him for eliminating some of the “danger” in the music. A few examples:

Laredo             Ohlsson
Sonata No. 4          8:00                 9:43
Sonata No. 6          12:48               12:59
Sonata No. 7          11:28               12:39
Sonata No. 9          7:19                 8:19

Nevertheless I found myself continually amazed and often startled by Ohlsson’s fresh new approach. Perhaps knowing that Scriabin “saw” colors when he composed, Ohlsson emphasizes the music’s colors and shadings. Listening to Scriabin’s few recordings of his own music (played on Welte-Mignon piano rolls), I hear much the same approach to the music although he himself had a more ethereal touch at times. All in all, however, this is a great release and one that now replaces both the Laredo and Bengtson sets as the recommended recordings of these sonatas.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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