The young Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko‘s new album offers a chronological tour through Russian composer Alexander Scriabin‘s piano works. The sequence has instructive value, while the performances reveal a close performer-composer affinity.
Scriabin (1872-1915) is one of those sui generis artists who invented his own musical world, or in his case, worlds. Though a contemporary of Rachmaninoff’s, Scriabin drew inspiration from Chopin for his early sets of Preludes. But as he progressed, his short piano pieces rapidly began to align more conceptually than stylistically with the Polish romantic. Later, inspired by contemporary strains of mysticism, Scriabin produced music even more distinctive.
On his album Scriabin: Preludes, Études and Sonatas, Kholodenko, gold medal winner at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013, gives us works from each important stage of the composer’s career. Many of the Preludes of Op. 13 and 16 stir a questing quality, even a feeling of uncertainty, into Chopinesque romanticism, though they hew to traditional tonalities. Kholodenko finds their solidity and sense, their beauty, indeed their friendliness. Likewise, in the Sonata No. 4 he brings out, in both of the contiguous movements, the sense of cosmic mysticism that interested him. At the same time, touches of playfulness temper the aggression of the second movement, even reminding me at moments of Debussy.
The violent surges that close the piece help make clear why Rachmaninoff championed Scriabin’s music. So do the “Poème tragique” and “Poème satanique.” In Kholodenko’s sure hands, the former’s rolling, bubbling chords and heavily accented melodies feel as triumphant as they do tragic, while the latter develops from a dramatic Brahmsian introduction into dry staccatos that sound almost like pizzicato strings; abrupt gesticulations; and demonic carnivalesque sneers, recalling, as André Lischke writes in the liner notes, Liszt”s “Mephisto-Waltz” No. 1.
Technique comes to the fore in the 8 Etudes, Op. 42, with their complex rhythms and fast tempi, but there is no sacrifice of musicality in the performances. Centering on the eruptive No. 5 in C-sharp minor (also the key of Rachmaninoff’s most popular Prelude), they show Scriabin fully engaged with his distinctive muse and interpreted by a pianist with a clear affinity for the music.
Kholodenko adroitly navigates the Sonata No. 5’s stürm und drang and superposition of rhythms, as well as its peaceful eddies, setting forth the operatic highs and lows in sharp relief. Echoes of the Romantic still reverberate; Scriabin never plunged completely into the abstract, and indeed the programmatic lines from his own “The Poem of Ecstasy” seem very apropos: “I call you to life, oh mysterious forces! / Drowned in the obscure depths / Of the creative spirit, timid / Shadows of life, to you I bring audacity!” (translation by Günter Philipp).
The album closes with “Vers la flamme” (“Toward the flame”), Op. 72. One can certainly picture in Kholodenko’s sensitive reading the “messianic exaltations” Lischke describes in his liner notes. At the same time, it’s hard not to imagine in this 1914 composition, one of Scriabin’s last, a vision of the imminent conflagration of World War I. As the music very slowly takes shape, I can picture Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp fading into an uncertain future as he goes off to war at the end of The Magic Mountain. There’s a yearning quality to this piece, a limpid demonstration of the unceasing desire for free expression that sparked Scriabin’s creativity for his entire prolific but too-brief career.
Scriabin: Preludes, Études and Sonatas is a superb survey of some of the most distinctive music by a composer who is today well remembered and valued by musicians and composers, but heard by audiences too seldom.
Sampling the three periods of Alexander Scriabin's music, Vadym Kholodenko presents a coherent and colorful program that includes a representative handful of the early preludes, two of the middle piano sonatas, a set of etudes, and three of the poems for keyboard.
While Scriabin's music steadily evolved from his youthful Chopinesque phase and a transitional, impressionistic period, similar in evocative harmonies and effects to Debussy, to a nearly atonal and atmospheric style all his own, there was always a virtuosic complexity in his piano pieces that makes it challenging for performers and listeners alike.
Kholodenko's ample technical skills and expressive powers combine to make these performances both evanescent and powerful, and the sounds he produces range from the fleeting and delicate to the ecstatically explosive, both of which are apparent in the Sonata No. 4. Yet the most compelling track may be Vers la flamme, a strangely muted work of Scriabin's final, mystical stage that seduces with its hypnotic repetitions, lush chromaticism, and shimmering textures.
Harmonia Mundi's recorded sound places the piano at a slight distance, creating a slightly veiled quality in softer passages that is appropriate.