Much of the music makes its immediate appeal to anyone sensitive to beauty…to say that much of it is Chopinesque is to give it praise.
ALEXANDER SCRIABIN (1872–1915)
PIANO CONCERTO IN F-SHARP MINOR, OP. 20
Gorgeous, undulating piano figures and subtle splashes of waltz in Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Concerto in F sharp minor recall the music of his idol, Frédéric Chopin.
Scriabin studied piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatorium alongside another pianist-composer titan, his friend and colleague Sergei Rachmaninoff. But Scriabin’s Piano Concerto, which he composed in 1896, four years after his graduation, is lighter on its feet and much more intimate than the denser concertos of his friend – it follows in the footsteps of Chopin rather than Tchaikovsky.
Scriabin had written previous works for piano, but this was his first work for orchestra and he gave the premiere himself in Moscow in 1897, with Vasily Safonov conducting. While Scriabin distanced himself from many of his early works, he performed this concerto throughout his career – including at Carnegie Hall and in London – as well as under the baton of Rachmaninoff in Russia in 1911. Rachmaninoff played the solo part himself in a memorial series for Scriabin following the composer’s death in 1915.
As Scriabin’s first real foray into orchestral writing, the concerto had a rocky start – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was scathing of the orchestration when his feedback was requested – but the concerto found a warmer reception in the concert hall.
‘Much of the music makes its immediate appeal to anyone sensitive to beauty,’ wrote a London critic after Scriabin’s performance in the city. ‘To say that much of it is Chopinesque is to give it praise.’
The central movement is in F sharp major, a key Scriabin associated with mysticism and transcendence as well as, later in his career, the colour blue. Scholars dispute whether Scriabin was a ‘true’ synesthete: he discovered his synaesthesia when he was 35 years old (unusual for those who experience the phenomenon) during a conversation with Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov, the latter of whom was a synesthete. Nonetheless, Scriabin claimed his favourite keys, particularly F sharp major, evoked the strongest colours.
A sighing French horn opens the first movement of Scriabin’s Piano Concerto, before the piano makes its own delicate entry. The horn’s falling figure becomes, as Scriabin put it, the ‘bedrock’ of the whole movement.
The second theme is a lighter, waltz-like melody, but the movement soon becomes tempestuous.
The Andante, in F sharp major, begins with serene, hymn-like strings and when the rippling piano enters it adorns a gentle clarinet melody. The movement is a theme with four variations, passing through several different moods.
The piano takes the lead in a more boisterous melody in the second variation – accompanied by chirpy woodwind flourishes – before it plunges into the low register for the darker third variation.
The final variation sees the return of light, and, perhaps, the brilliant blue the composer associated with his favourite key.
The finale is the Concerto’s longest movement and its grandest, the composer largely leaving behind the intimacy of the first two movements for broad, soaring melodies and the kind of brilliant virtuosity that puts a young pianist-composer on the map.
© Angus McPherson, 2023