Fernández Explores the Evolution of Scriabin’s Preludes

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SCRIABIN: Complete Preludes: Op. 2 No. 2; Op. 9 No. 1; 24 Preludes Op. 11; 6 Preludes Op. 13; Preludes Opp. 15-17; 4 Preludes Op. 22; 2 Preludes Op. 27; 4 Preludes Op. 31, Op. 33; 3 Preludes Op. 35; 4 Preludes Opp. 37, 39, 48; Op. 49 No. 2; Op. 51 No. 2; Op. 56 No. 1; Op. 59 No. 2; 2 Preludes Op. 67; 5 Preludes Op. 74 / Eduardo Fernández, pianist / Orpheus 8436564933485, available at CD Baby, iTunes and Amazon.co.uk

Alexander Scriabin’s Preludes, which span the whole of his compositional output, were of course never meant to be heard complete in one sitting as they are here in this handsomely-packaged 2-CD set. Some of them, as Stefano Russomanno points out in the liner notes, were portions of suites and sometimes the “Prelude” did not actually lead off as the first piece. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to hear the whole series as they evolved in his mind.

Scriabin’s position in music history is still a rather odd and uncomfortable fit. He started out as a fanatic devotee of Chopin, even to the point of sleeping with the Polish composer’s scores under his pillow, and it is clear in his music through about 1894 that he was trying very hard to be Frydryk Chopin, Jr. He succeeded so well that in a blindfold test most classical listeners would probably guess Chopin as the composer of most of these Preludes, and even some of the early Sonatas (although the latter would be harder to palm off, since most people know that Chopin only wrote two published sonatas, Nos. 2 and 3). But the language and the mood are strictly Chopinesque, and this is how Eduardo Fernández plays these works here. The faster Preludes—and there aren’t too many—receive a wonderfully direct, almost muscular approach with superb phrasing and articulation, which is how I remember his recording of Albéniz’ Iberia. The slow Preludes, on the other hand, are played very slowly, the music made to float and waft through the mind like clouds on a lazy summer’s day. It’s a way of exploring, and somewhat explaining, Scriabin’s obsession with this form as a person who saw music in colors and, in fact, created an elaborate chart assigning specific colors to exact tones in the diatonic scale.

I am not a person who hears music in colors. I can get a feel for music being coloristic, which is not the same thing, but I don’t hear specific notes as being blue or burnt orange. Some people have this gift. I just happen not to be one of them. Therefore I listen to music for different things such as warmth (again, not the same as colors), a feeling that the music is well-bound musically structurally, and judicious use of dynamics. Fernández provides most of these things, which made me very pleased with his performances in general. In some of the “Lento” Preludes, particularly the early ones, I felt that structure was left to dissipate in lieu of mood and (yes) color. This is probably a legitimate way of playing them, however, since mood and color were so much a part of Scriabin’s sound world. Sumptuousness and sensuousness were as important to him as the all-out explosions of orchestral ecstasy one finds in his symphonies and tone poems; and, of course, the piano was his instrument and therefore his most personal means of expression. Many times in the course of his scores one finds directions pointing towards these qualities. He sought, as Russomanno put it, “the expression of a voluptuous and uncertain lyricism,” occasionally indicated by such specific markings as “Misterioso,” “Affettuoso, “Appassionata,” “Andante doloroso,” “Patetico,” “Vagamente” and “Languido.”

Once one accepts the fact that these are probably valid readings of the scores, one begins to realize how much thought and hard work Fernández put into his performances. He tried to enter into the mind of Scriabin at the point of creation, following his musical thoughts—and vision of colors—as he put these miniatures together. Suddenly, all the floated notes and little luftpausen make sense. The slow Preludes took their time evolving while the fast ones rushed through his mind as, so to speak, a stream of colors.

Indeed, as the series goes on—by the time you reach, for instance, the 5 Preludes, Op. 16 of 1894-95—you can tell that Scriabin’s approach to composition in general and the Preludes in particular is changing. There is less floating, even in the slow pieces, and tighter construction. By this time, Scriabin was groping around less and more sure of himself and what colors he wanted to explore in each piece. There is a cetain consistency of approach in the way Fernández plays these works, which ties them to the earlier Preludes, but the changes are apparent to the attentive listener.

Changing over from CD 1 to CD 2 is almost like entering a different world. Here, in the Op. 17 Preludes of 1895-96, the mature Scriabin makes his appearance in full bloom. Despite the continuance of slow tempi, no one would confuse these pieces for Chopin. They clearly belong to a different world, and you can feel the shift in Fernández’ playing. The Prelude No. 5 in this set (“Presto”) has the feel of Scriabin’s mid-period sonatas, not merely muscular but with a certain ambiguity to the harmonic base. By 1903 you start hearing the extended and diminished chords that became a hallmark of Scriabin’s mature style. None of this music could be confused for Chopin except, perhaps, in mood. In the Op. 35, No. 2 Prelude, we briefly hear the notes of Wagner’s “Tristan chord.”

By 1905 all thoughts of Chopin are gone. This is mature Scriabin and it shows, the music working through chromatic lines backed by unusual chord positions. I don’t think Scriabin had much idea what was happening in Germany at the time—he led a fairly isolated life in Russia—but within his own sphere he was clearly the most advanced composer of his day. Aaron Copland later wondered why he didn’t just abandon the tonal system entirely, as Schoenberg did in Germany, but I don’t think he really wanted to do that. He wanted to modify the existing scale and chord system, but not overthrow it because without some richness in the chords he wouldn’t have had his colors. In the Preludes of 1912 and after, we hear his “mystic chord” based on a superimposition of fourths, whose purpose was to blur the gap between melodic and harmonic content. Had Scriabin lived longer he might have found a way to incorporate some principles of atonalism into his music, but I think he’d only have used them as a bridge between more harmonically developed sections. His goal was to unite all harmony, not to refute it.

Fernández gives us the full measure of these Preludes, consistent in his vision from start to finish. You can stream this recording on Spotify or Deezer, or you can purchase the whole album as a download at CD Baby or iTunes, but I strongly urge you to buy the physical CDs at Amazon.co.uk. Why? Not just because the deluxe packaging is so attractive, which it is, but because these recordings are engineered in such a way that when you play them on a good system, the piano seems to be right in the room with you. It has that much presence, and you’re going to lose that if you stick to digital downloads.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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