The Ecstasy…….and the ecstasy. Peter Donohoe’s Scriabin marathon at Milton Court

Is it Chopin? Or Liszt? Or maybe Brahms? To the ingenue listener, Scriabin’s first piano sonata suggests all of these composers – Chopin’s long-spun lyricism, Liszt’s sweeping romanticism, Brahms’ plangent, orchestral textures, or maybe even Rachmaninov on a fantasy-frolic. But as Alexander Scriabin’s great friend, Leonid Sabaneyev said “he is not like Chopin. He is like Scriabin“.

Scriabin inhabits a distinctive, personal soundworld which is hard to define. It is the music of excess, ecstasy, tumult and passion. It is excessive, overripe, decadent, heavily perfumed, languorous and frenzied, lacking in structure and sometimes downright bizarre. The music of extremes, it is “hyper everything”, and as such it defies description or categorization. Its language is complex, often atonal and frequently almost impenetrable. For some listeners, and artists too, it is this “over-the-top-ness” that is off-putting; for others, myself included, it is this sense of excess and rapture that is so compelling. His personal life and outlook mirrored the excesses of his music: he was dissolute, he could be outrageous, he had high-falutin’ ideas of his own self-worth, and he believed music should be intimately connected to all of human experience. Perhaps this explains the breathless sensuality, the roaring passion and mystic spirituality of his music. All of human life is here, in all its ecstasy.

Scriabin was also a synaesthete, as I am, and it was his synaesthesia which initially drew me to his music.

…..he wrote and spoke of the colours of his music, of the constantly changing shapes that chords and rhythms and melodies could summon up, almost like a spiritualist at a séance. His scores bristle with detailed and evocative markings designed to help the performers imagine what the listeners see and feel.

– Gerard McBurney

The ten piano sonatas chart the course of Scriabin’s musical development more faithfully than any of his other music. The last sonatas hint at where his music was heading and offer a captivating glimpse into his adventures in atonality, while the early ones demonstrate his forays into late-nineteenth-century romanticism, the music of his compatriot Rachmaninov.

In presenting Scriabin’s ten piano sonatas in a single concert, British pianist Peter Donohoe amply demonstrated the variety of Scriabin’s writing for the piano – its rich textures, trembling filigree gestures, mystic perfumed harmonies, and ferocious virtuosity (Scriabin was a fine pianist himself). From the first youthful sonata, written a year after Scriabin left the Moscow Conservatoire and at a time when he was raging against a self-inflicted injury to his right hand, to the incense-laden mysticism of the ninth, the infamous “Black Mass”, Peter Donohoe plunged into the programme with relish. Never mind that there were still nine sonatas to go, the first was played with pulsating power and energy.

The programme was not presented entirely chronologically, and the middle section of the concert featured sonatas six, seven and eight, played in a single sequence without applause (as requested by the performer). At this point, one simply submitted to the music, to be drenched in myriad sounds and textures. Here Scriabin’s kaleidoscopic tonal palette, filigree figurations, perfumed sonorites and complex rhythms were magically brought to life by a pianist who totally “gets” this music. Hauntingly-lit piquant harmonies, ethereal accompaniments, jazz idioms, Peter Donohoe brought muscularity and featherlight delicacy to this ecstatic music.

The music was interspersed with engaging readings by Gerard McBurney, which illuminated the music and the man. These were accompanied by projections behind the piano, mostly grainy photographs of the composer and his friends, or abstract images which were supposed to suggest a synaesthete’s response to the music. For this synaesthete, it was rather awkward – and I suspect it may have been for Scriabin too: for him key of F was associated with deep red, while for me it is mauve, yet we were treated to blue during the first sonata (in F minor).

I was disappointed not to be able to stay for the final segment of the concert, but I have Peter’s recording of the complete Scriabin Piano Sonatas to enable me to complete this magnificent journey.