Russians Alexey Stanchinsky and Alexander Scriabin are featured on Darkness Illuminated, a new disc on the Ulysses Arts label by Uzbek pianist Nafis Umerkulova. Here she seeks to put the obscure Stanchinsky in the spotlight alongside his far more famous contemporary, Scriabin, and the album comprises works by both composers written over a 17-year time period from 1894/5 until 1912, allowing the listener to appreciate how each composer’s oeuvre developed over time while also comparing and contrasting their music.
Such was Stanchinsky’s artistic gift that many believed he was destined to follow in the footsteps of that other great Russian Romantic composer Rachmaninov (he studied with Taneyev, who also taught Rachmaninov). But with his premature death at the age of 26, and the turmoil of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Soviet Regime, Stanchinsky fell into obscurity, and has since been thoroughly overshadowed by his more famous contemporary, Scriabin.
Both composers come from the great nineteenth-century European Romantic tradition, and the influence of Chopin is especially clear in their piano miniatures (one could easily mistake some of Stanchinsky’s Preludes and the Nocturne on this disc for Chopin). These are deeply lyrical, sensitive works, often introspective and intimate, and the later sets reveal more experimental writing, with forays into counterpoint, unexpected harmonies, modality and idioms drawn from Russian folk music. But perhaps the most striking work is the Piano Sonata in E-flat minor which opens this album. Cast in a single movement, with all the richness and virtuosity of Rachmaninov, it is a homage to Scriabin and shares many of the features of Scriabin’s piano sonatas with its fantasy-like structure, colourful harmonic palette and wide-ranging ideas, including a slow section in the major key which could be influenced by American folk music. It’s an impressive opening and Nafis gives this big-boned work full rein, allowing its myriad concepts to flow with a vibrant spontaneity.
Scriabin’s Preludes, Op 16 and 22, are wonderfully intricate, replete with Romantic elegance and lavish lyricism, each Prelude with its own distinctive character. Hints of experimentation are already present, especially in his use of harmony and dissonance to suggest specific moods, and his mastery of tension and release. By the time we reach the two Poems, Op 32, in the latter part of the album, his experimental approach to texture and harmonic shading is clear; these are works which look forward to the atonality of Schoenberg.
This is a most satisfying album which works rather in the manner of a recital disc, and Nafis makes a strong case for both composers in her highly accomplished playing, a spontaneity and freshness which really suits this music, and a rich, warm direct sound, combined with her evident affection for this music.
‘Darkness Illuminated’ is released on the Ulysses Arts label
The music of Alexander 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, agony, terror and beauty.
In his piano music, he reveals himself as a master of the miniature, and while he wrote 10 piano sonatas – interesting in themselves as they chart his compositional development (nos. 5 to 10 are included on this album) – his shorter works for piano, including some 85 Preludes, distil in microcosm his unique style.
If anything, Scriabin’s late piano music is perhaps his most interesting, revealing his move away from the “pure” Chopin/Schumann/Liszt-influenced romanticism of the nineteenth century as he experimented with unusual harmonies (his “mystic chord”, derived from a dominant 7th) and a kaleidoscopic tonal palette. In addition, fleeting fragments of melody, fleeting filigree figurations, brooding dream sequences, haunting chromaticism, febrile complex rhythms point towards Schoenberg, Messiaen and the avant garde and leave us wondering what Scriabin might have written had he lived longer into the 20th century.
In this generous 2-disc recording James Kreiling makes a persuasive case for Scriabin’s late piano music, suggesting in his detailed readable liner notes that this is the best place for the Scriabin ingénue to start exploring his music. With scrupulous attention to detail and an insightful approach to the music (James’s doctoral research focussed on the late piano sonatas), James captures the composer’s idiosyncrasies with a compelling naturalness and an acute sensitivity to the shifting moods and colours, combining muscularity and delicacy. The free-form nature of this unusual music and the brevity of many of the works draw the listener into a continuous flow of sound – and a lovely sound it is too. The piano is bright-toned yet warm (the recording was made at Henry Wood Hall with Iain Gordon as piano technician, engineered by Michael Ponder), and stylishly-produced album artwork reflects the high quality of the recording.
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.
The curious, often sensual and hypnotic soundworld of Alexander Scriabin is viewed through the lens of a three-piece jazz ensemble in the David Gordon Trio’s new album Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band. Released at the close of the year marking the centenary of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s death, the album is a witty and imaginative take on Scriabin’s music, part reinterpretation, part hommage to the many elements and influences which make up this composer’s unusual oeuvre.
In an earlier article for this site, written on the anniversary of Scriabin’s death, David Gordon describes the many motifs and idioms from jazz which are also present in Scriabin’s music. He also highlights the other music which was being created over in America and Western Europe at the same time, from Irving Berlin to Claude Debussy. Thus the album contains tracks which reference these composers too, from the entertaining ‘Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band’ (track 2) which directly references Berlin’s ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. In ‘Cakewalk’ there is a groovy hint of Debussy’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from Children’s Corner, a reminder that Debussy fell under the spell of a new kind of music emerging from America. ‘Famous Etude’ turns Scriabin’s Op 8, No. 12 into a sensual tango which segues into a samba, David Gordon weaving a hypnotic piano improvisation over silky cymbal and drums.
In an way, the opening track is the most interesting. Scriabin’s original Prelude op. 74 no. 2 becomes Praeludium Mysterium, a trippy number with spooky, Schoenberg-like dissonance which tells us as much about the strange soundworld and musical personality of Alexander Scriabin as it does about the David Gordon Trio’s ability to create something striking and new out of what is normally defined as “classical” music. The result is a wonderfully weird fusion. The ensuing tracks are arrangements, mostly by the Trio’s pianist, David Gordon, and like the opening track, they are not just “jazzed up” classics. The music exploits Scriabin’s penchant for dissonance and innovation and hints at what Scriabin might have composed had he lived longer.
Throughout, David Gordon’s piano sound is bright, yet warm, with sparing, sensitive rubato, a clear sense of phrasing and rhythmic vitality in the upbeat numbers. He is complemented by bass player Jonty Fisher and drummer Paul Cavaciuti. The Trio are adept at switching seamlessly between styles, and the whole album works as one might experience a set or two in a jazz club, or enjoy individual tracks as the mood takes you.
On the centenary of the death of Alexander Scriabin, a guest post by David Gordon
Musicians who write about playing music can easily get themselves into hot water, but in this case I’m happy to bathe in the opportunity to gather my thoughts about the latest project I’ve embarked on with my jazz trio, entitled ‘Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band’. We are of course celebrating the life of Alexander Scriabin on the centenary of his death, at the same time trying to locate his music in the context of popular music in and around 1915.
I first came across Scriabin’s music in the 1980s through a beautiful interpretation of his A minor Prelude Op. 11 no. 2 by the jazz giant Chick Corea www.allmusic.com/album/trio-music-live-in-europe-mw0000188008. Clearly this is an area that has continued to interest him, and in a recently posted video, Corea workshops his ideas about another of Scriabin’s preludes in front of an audience.
This represents a harmonious meeting between the totally distinctive soundworlds of Scriabin and Chick Corea. With a far less distinctive personal soundworld I’ve even tried this myself with a Scriabin-inspired composition, ‘Snakes and Ladders’ which the trio recorded on the CD ‘Angel Feet’ (Guild Records ZZCD9819).
With this current project, what started as whimsy – noticing that the ‘Prelude for Left Hand Op. 9 no. 1’ lent itself to an interpretation calling upon early tango and the jazz style of Errol Garner, and then noticing that a project that would include ragtime could bear such a fortuitous (for us) name – has become a more serious study of the connections between Scriabin’s music and popular music of the time.
The first concerns geography. Whilst the life of the wretched five year-old Israel Berlin fleeing with his family for the USA from some far-flung burning village in Russia could hardly be more different experience from Scriabin’s rarefied aristocratic Moscow upbringing, perhaps we can ascribe something to a sense of place. That is, if we accept that part of where music comes from is the land, the air, the birdsong, the language, then, by dint of geography, the music of Irving Berlin and Scriabin might be loosely connected by these things at least. And it was not just Berlin but many of the other originators of the Great American Songbook who hailed from Russia or Russian immigrants.
Meanwhile the estimable anthology ‘Jazz in Print 1856-1929’ by Karl Koenig gives one example after another of how Afro-American musicians looked to the Russian people, and their folksong in particular, as a model for culture-building that inspired many of those involved the ragtime revolution. And in a recent interview the Cuban pianist genius Chucho Valdes cites Rachmaninov’s music as one that naturally fits with, and can be seen as part of the heritage of, the vast and cosmopolitan tapestry that is Cuban music.
But now to brass tacks: let me enumerate some of the specific technical considerations that unite these two worlds.
Scriabin makes use the AABA form, with each section 8 bars long, so beloved of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriters. And, going back to geography, ‘I Got Rhythm’, regarded as a template for this type of song, was written by the child of then recently-arrived Russian immigrants, George Gershwin.*
Altered dominant harmonies, rightly regarded as Scriabin’s pioneering achievement. But it also prefigures a great deal of jazz harmonic theory, and Scriabin’s harmonic system reads more easily when viewed in that light. The so-called ‘Mystic Chord’ turns out to be just a specific voicing of the 7#11 chord. Scriabin’s use of interlocking tritones, so tonality-threatening to early 20th century ears, are water off a jobbing jazz musician’s back. And the octatonic – for jazz musicians, the diminished – scale is often in the background of, and occasionally present in some of his later music. This scale which once appeared so tonality-obscuring, is now heavily associated with dominant harmony in mainstream jazz circles – indeed, a jazz musician’s best friend.
Scriabin’s use of ‘rootless’ harmonies happens to be one of the innovations credited to jazz pianists such as Bill Evans in the 1950s. The harmonies themselves were used by composers as far back as Liszt, but hearing these chords without their bass note, as Scriabin used them, was at that time unprecedented, as far as I know. The opening of the left hand part of Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata, for example, could easily pass for a transcription of Evans’s playing. Did he know Scriabin’s music? (We notice that Bill Evans was half Russiann from Ukraine; the speculations start to pile up).
Some of Scriabin’s later music prefigures even more advanced jazz innovations. The ‘Dance languide, Op. 51, no. 4’ seems to recall, or predict, the uncompromising sound-world of Thelonius Monk. And a very slight configuring of the harmony of ‘Prelude Op. 67 no. 2’ gives us the hard edged dark harmonic world of the ‘60s or even later to produce an improbably hip post-bop workout.
These are to some extent naïve, not researched, connections, but they enable us to dream when approaching his music from a jazz standpoint. The fact that this or that signature in the music reminds us of something – the ‘Album leaf Op. 45 No. 1’ works well as an early funk or Motown groove, because of its descending chromatic figure in the bass – in itself may not be good enough reason to play it thus. On the other hand it might! But interpreting some of his pieces as choro, jazz-samba or north European style modal jazz, etc. allows them to speak to us in a different way and, when we record and perform it in this way, should give his music a new public (albeit a small one, given the size of the jazz audience!) And I very much look forward to putting some popular music from 1915 alongside this music: we will attempt ragtime, of course, but also, tango, choro, danzón, perhaps – if we can find a way – even the Original Jelly Roll Blues, published in that same year.
Would Scriabin have liked jazz, which his early death deprived him of hearing, by a whisker? Perhaps the earliest jazz of his time would not have appealed, and it’s hard to see the blues doing much for him. But perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to think that the unstoppable, transcendent flow that the best modern jazz achieves, the ecstasy and transformative power it strives for – the fire and air elements that characterize e.g. Keith Jarrett’s playing – yes, it’s possible. And if his music helped in some way to shape that language, perhaps that should come as no surprise.
Finally, I have just put the finishing touches to our signature song, Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band, which is a light-hearted summary of the whole project, and finds the trio in full-throated song. I am very excited by this new project, which is unlike anything I’ve tried before, and which I hope will be as entertaining for the listener as it has been instructive for me.
Work in progress video:
*For those of us who like to take things as far as they will go, doesn’t the Rêverie Op. 49 No. 3 bear a resemblance to Gershwin’s ‘Nice Work if you can Get it’? Or am I just imagining things?
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