Vision of Colour & Passion:

Piano Recital to Commemorate the Centenary of Alexander Scriabin’s Death

Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 4 October, 2015 (Sunday) 8PM

Scriabin: Vision of Colour and Passion

Meet Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, piano prodigy turned concert pianist, composer and mystic. He was born on Christmas Day (January 6 in Gregorian calendar) 1872 and died prematurely due to blood poisoning at the age of 43. Among the personal possessions in his final residence on Arbat Street, Moscow, one could find the following intriguing items: a dictionary of Sanskrit on the bookshelf; a pile of taxidermied snakes; a clavier à lumières – an ‘apparatus’ designed by connecting each note of the keyboard to specific coloured-light bulb, projecting colours of the spectrum when the notes are ‘played’. If that isn’t bizarre enough for a normal household, among the pages in a century-old notebook, the composer penned “I am God! I am nothing, I am play, I am freedom, I am life. I am the boundary, I am the peak.” Over at one corner sat the manuscripts of the composer’s final unfinished project, Mysterium – a week-long ritualistic performance to be held at the foot of the Himalayas. By invoking the combined cosmic powers of light, scents, song and speech, the composer envisioned an apocalypse of the material world and the spiritual rebirth of humanity.

Outlandish as it may seem, Scriabin was convinced of his messianic missions and visions, which consisted of a curious blend of theosophy, Nietzsche and even Hinduism. Regardless of how the composer’s worldview departs from social norm, one thing is certain – Scriabin’s compositions reflected an interdisciplinary approach to the arts at the fin-de-siècle. Literature, painting, music and dance were no longer treated as insulated art forms; the elements of text, sound, colour and movements came into play at the disposal of the artist. Just as we associate Monet with Debussy and Munch with Schoenberg, Scriabin’s music found its visual equivalent in the works of compatriot painters Chagall and Kadinsky.

While Scriabin is often described as a synesthete – an individual who develops multiple sensory responses via stimulation of sight, sound or words – research efforts proved that his condition of chromesthesia was associative than neurological. In fact, Rimsky-Korsakov and Messiaen were also known to be affected by chromesthesia. To complicate things further, various synesthetes develop different associations with pitch and sounds. Imagine the chaos a synesthetic performer or audience would have experienced when the clavier à lumières was brought into action in Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, not to mention the influx of words from the prescribed programme notes of the composer.

Perhaps the solution to the problem of sensory overload is to rely on one’s instinct, as Scriabin did, as an exceptional pianist and a composer ahead of his time. Simply by closing your eyes and opening your ears, the urgency of Scriabin’s music is immediately apparent. One could easily picture how the composer frantically scrawled on the manuscript before the flash of inspiration had escaped him; and how he scribbled along the margins, just to make sure his ideas were understood by the listener. There is certainly a fine line between a genius and crazed egomaniac. Despite his maverick existence and controversial reception, Scriabin was perhaps a more contented fellow than Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich nonetheless.


Two Poèmes, Op.32
No.1 in F sharp major: Andante cantabile
No.2 in D major: Allegro con eleganza, con fluida
Two Poèmes, Op.69
No.1: Allegretto
No.2: Allegretto
Poème Tragique, Op.34

Alexander Wong

Scriabin was neither the first nor the last composer to entitle his work as poème (poem). What is worth noting, though, was that this title is applied to his 34 piano miniatures, as well as last three symphonies, better known to audiences as The Divine Poem, Op. 43 (Symphony No.3); The Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54 (Symphony No. 4); and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, Op. 60 (Symphony No. 5).

In general, Scribian’s poèmes are single movement works, with some kind of implied narrative framed by a flexible structure. Some of the poèmes for piano carry suggestive, programmatic titles. However, unlike their symphonic counterparts, Scriabin rarely dictated the exact programme in the score, leaving enough room for the audience’s imagination.

The two poèmes of Op. 69, written a decade later, were representative of Scriabin’s mature style. Both evoke a sense of ‘otherworldliness’ with special pitch arrangements and unusual ‘conclusions’. The theme of the first poème is built upon an augmented chord, with two written out cadenzas. The second is based upon the octatonic scale and strikes immediate resemblance to Ravel’s Ondine.

Written in 1903, the two poèmes of Op.32 and Poème tragique were Scriabin’s first venture in this genre. These works also marked the composer’s early departure from the major-minor tonalities.

The two sister works of Op.32 exemplified Scriabin’s pianism: the first poème begins with an air of ambiguity in which the key of F sharp minor is often obscured by quasi-pentatonic figurations. The second poème bears an unmistakable influence of Liszt. Despite Scriabin’s indication of ‘con eleganza’, the right hand melody is constantly challenged by the relentless pounding chords in the left hand. Its resurgence in the clarion register towards the end suggests a sense of transcendence and peace after the storm.

Scriabin’s enigmatic markings were evident again in the Poème tragique. Despite the title, the music begins with a ‘festivamente’ theme reminiscent of Strauss. The middle section presents an ominous theme against the ferocious figuarations in the left hand.

Sonata-Fantasy no.2 in G sharp minor, Op.19

Natalia Tokar, piano solo

Sonata no.4 in F sharp major, Op.30
Prestissimo volando

KaJeng Wong, piano solo

Sonata no.5 in F sharp major, Op.53

Natalia Tokar, piano solo

Scriabin’s ten sonatas mirror the composer’s stylistic development in full scale: from the First Sonata, written at the age of fourteen, while he was at the Cadet Corps in Moscow to the last three works, composed in 1913 on a Russian country estate.

The musical language and form of the first three sonatas grew out of the Romantic legacies of Beethoven and Liszt, who had diminished the formal and generic boundaries between the sonata and the fantasy. The Fourth sonata heralded a new creative period, one in which Scriabin re-defined the piano sonata in his own terms.From the Fifth sonata onwards, Scriabin eschewed the multi-movement structure and dispensed with key signatures altogether.

Scriabin’s piano sonata not only constitute the backbone of his oeuvre, but also staple of Russian piano literature. Prokofiev once wrote ‘my fingers ache from playing Scriabin’. Horowitz and Richter were also champions of Scriabin’s works.

Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor, Op. 19 (1892-7) was inspired by the sea, which Scriabin first experienced on a trip to Latvia in 1892. Its completion was probably spurred by Scriabin’s honeymoon on the shores of the Black Sea in 1897. The composer wrote a short programme for the sonata:

The first part evokes the calm of a night by the seashore in the South; in the development we hear the sombre agitation of the depths. The section in E major represents the tender moonlight which comes after the first dark of the night. The second movement, presto, shows the stormy agitation of the vast expanse of ocean.

Sonata No. 4, Op. 30 (1903) was conceived amidst personal crises: Scriabin had lost mentor and publisher, Belyayev and his marriage to Vera Ivanova Isakovich was about to break down. Scriabin penned a poem as the programme:

Thinly veiled in transparent cloud
A star shines softly, far and lonely.
How beautiful! The azure secret
Of its radiance beckons, lulls me …
Vehement desire, sensual, insane, sweet …
Now! Joyfully I fly upward toward you,
Freely I take wing.
Mad dance, godlike play …
I draw near in my longing …
Drink you in, sea of light, you light of my own self …

The first movement faintly echoes Chopin and brings Scriabin closer to the camp of Wagner and Liszt. The harmony is often left suspended, unresolved, floating over an aerial texture. It is immediately followed by the second movement, a dazzling dance in the spirit of Debussy capped by a blazing coda typical of Scriabin.

Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (1907), was written in a frenzied manner within a week. Scriabin considered it his best composition at the time. Again he provided an extract from his Poème de l’Extase as the programme:

I call you to life, mysterious forces!
Drowned in the obscure depths
of the creative spirit, timid
Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity!

The sonata, like its symphonic counterparts oscillates between the fantastical, the sensual and the ecstatic. It is worth noting that the ‘mystic’ chord (a chromatically altered dominant chord arranged in fourths), which predominates Scriabin’s late style, makes its appearance at the heart of the piece (marked ‘con delizia’ by the composer).

Préludes, op.11
No.1 in C major: Vivace
No.5 in D major: Andante cantabile
No.11 in B major: Allegro assai
No.14 in E flat minor: Presto
No.19 in E flat major: Affetuoso

Nancy Loo, piano solo

Chopin’s twenty-four Préludes, Op.28 had a far-fetched influence on Russian pianist-composers – Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, fellow students from the boarding school of Nikolai Zverev and later the Moscow Conservatory, each came up with his own set. Shostakovich wrote his twenty four preludes, Op.34 in a similar vein.

Throughout Scriabin’s life, he wrote no less than 90 préludes, with the majority published as sets containing multiple works. Each of these works never exceeded three pages in length. Interestingly, Scriabin often inscribed the date and place of composition of each piece, a custom observed also by Shostakovich. As a result, his préludes became the equivalent of a musical memoirs, providing glimpses of the composer’s creative routine.

The twenty-four préludes of Op 11 were written over a course of eight years, ranging from 1888-1896. Scriabin took after Chopin’s key-scheme by arranging the set through an ascending circle of fifths, with each major key followed by its relative minor. Nevertheless, the works were not composed out of chronological order: Prélude No 4 was the first Scriabin wrote and it dated back to his student days at the Moscow Conservatory. Scriabin attempted to create a companion collection in his next four opuses. He only managed to produce twenty-three more and the project was abandoned after 1896.

Prélude No. 1 is characterized by a sense of fluidity. The contrary motion between the two hands gradually converges towards the end. No. 5 charts an opposite trajectory: the simple melody gradually untangles itself from the endless stream of quavers in the bass, reaching to ethereal heights at the end. No 11 opens with agitated, short-breathed phrases, enhanced by virtuosic writing in the left hand. Here again, the music undergoes a kind of metamorphosis: the melody gathers in length and sheds its restlessness as the prélude unfolds. Set in irregular meter, No 14 evokes images of a scurrying mountain stream. No 19 hints at the influence of Schumann with its pervasive use dotted rhythm and anacrusis, which gives the music a sense of exhilaration.

Prélude in C sharp minor for left hand, op.9 no.1
Nocturne in D flat major for left hand, op.9 no.2

KaJeng Wong, piano solo

As an aspiring concert pianist at the Moscow Conservatory, Scriabin spent his time memorizing Beethoven’s sonatas, juggling Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan and Balakirev’s Islamey at the same time. He suffered from an injury to his right hand as a result of over-practice in 1891. Inhibited by the condition, Scriabin took the opportunity to experiment with compositions for the left hand alone in 1894. The result was the two technical tour de force of Op.9.

The Prélude was a clever maneuver in which the melodic part was assigned to the thumb and the stronger fingers of the left hand, leaving the rest of the fingers to conjure up various filigrees in the accompaniment.

The Nocturne encompasses a wider range and even greater physical challenge than its companion piece. Not only is the left hand required to produce a cantabile melody typical of nocturnes, it is exploited to navigate wide leaps and dense chordal texture in the middle section, as well as the two virtuosic cadenza passages straddling the extremity of the registers of the piano.

Scriabin’s little diversion was amply rewarded. Both pieces were favorably received since publication and they firmly established Scriabin’s reputation as an exceptional pianist-composer.

Étude in C sharp minor, op.2 no.1
Étude in F sharp minor, op.8 no.2
Étude in D sharp minor, op.8 no.12

Nancy Loo, piano solo

Like the Préludes, the Études of Scriabin revealed the gradual transformation of the composer’s musical language: from a protégé of Chopin to a unique artist in his own right. The Étude Op. 2, No. 1, dated back to 1887, was published with two other pieces under the title of Trios morceaux. Characterized by a strong sense of nostalgia and a tripartite structure, the music reveal a surprising affinity to the late piano miniatures of Brahms.

The twelve Études under Op. 8 was a watershed for Scriabin. On one hand, these works continued to advance virtuosity on the keyboard, exhausting various challenges in thirds, sixths, octaves and a wide variety of figurations. On the other hand, they are no longer mere exercises for the pianist. Instead, the etudes became tools for the composer to experiment with the rich palette of sonorities.

The second etude is marked ‘A capriccio, con forza’. The capricious element is derived mainly from the intricate cross-rhythms and the subtle differentiations of accents in the music. The final etude No 12 is a taxing study in octaves, characterized by a bold, heroic theme soaring above the tumultuous accompaniment. Scriabin composed an alternative version of the etude, but it only came to light in 1969 when Austrian-Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti performed it in a televised broadcast in the States.

Romance and Étude Op.8 no. 11 for Cello and Piano

Artem Konstantinov, cello
KaJeng Wong, piano
Nancy Loo, piano

Scriabin’s foray into chamber music yielded to two occasional pieces – a movement for string quartet and the Romance for horn and piano. The latter not published in Scriabin’s lifetime. According to investigations by musicologists, the Romance was believed to have been written in 1890 for the Viennese horn virtuoso, Louis Savart (1871– 1923). The posthumous first edition was published in 1927.

Thanks to Ukraine-born American cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976), the Romance came into circulation again through his transcription and performances. Piatigorsky also made transcriptions of Scriabin’s penultimate etude from Op.8. The range and timbre of the cello is well-suited to the treble-dominated prelude, which was a rare find among the collection.

Trios Morceaux, op.45
No.1 Feuillet d’Album
No.2 Poème fantastique
No.3 Prelude
Valse in D flat major

Alexander Wong, piano solo

Fantasy for Two Pianos in A minor

Nancy Loo, piano
KaJeng Wong, piano

The Trios Morceaux, op.45 were written in 1904. Each of the three pieces takes barely a minute to play. The Feuillet d’album is full of yearning and melancholy. The melody is derived from the pitches E flat-C-flat and B. The Poème fantasque and the Prelude are complementary to one and other. The former evokes the repeated ignition and extinction of a flickering flame, whereas the latter conjures up the idea of a crackling fire with sparks flying.

The Valse in D flat major was completed in 1886 and published after Scriabin’s death. Charming and graceful, it exemplifies the nineteenth-century salon music, which Scriabin had acquainted himself through the works of Chopin and others. Despite the composer’s young age at the time of composition, the piece showed Scriabin’s penchant for the sonorous, low register of the piano.

Scriabin’s Fantasy for Two Pianos was originally conceived as a concert piece for piano and orchestra in the winter of 1892. It predated the composer’s only piano concerto, Op.20 by four years. The Fantasy was never orchestrated or performed during Scriabin’s lifetime. The music is built upon three distinctive themes and their variations.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.