News & Reviews

Seven Questions to Pianist Matthew Bengtson

An Interview by Tilman Skowroneck

Westfield interview

1) Matt, you just came home from playing a solo recital with a full Scriabin program: sonatas and smaller works. What’s even more special about it: you played at noon on solstice day, at the Thikse Gompa Buddhist Monastery in central Ladakh, India, at the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. The recital was part of a larger celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Scriabin’s death. Why solstice day? Why the Himalayas?

Scriabin imagined his “Mysterium” to be held in the foothills in the Himalayas because he thought of India as the cradle of civilization, spiritually. The progress of the sun was supposed to symbolize the path to enlightenment, with the solstice as the climax. He intended to combine all kinds of sensory experience in the event: music, color, dance, perfumes, architecture, and also the landscape. To my knowledge, in 100 years this was the first event to have attempted to combine all these sensory experiences in a Scriabin festival. It was quite stunning to witness the beauty and grandeur of the landscape and a real kick to smell Michel Roudnistka’s perfumes designed for the occasion, and to collaborate with the monks of the monastery in their traditional Cham dance.

2) When I first met you I immediately got the impression that Scriabin has a special place for you - for me as a listener, it seems that you have a strong emotional affinity with this music. How did you get to know this music?

Like many piano enthusiasts, I enjoyed listening to Horowitz’s performances and also saw them on television. So of course I heard him play the famous D# minor Etude and the early C minor op. 2, no. 1. Horowitz passed away while I was in high school, and his New York Times obituary listed a select discography. I always liked to explore, so on a whim, I bought his Scriabin CD on CBS Masterworks just to see what other music there might be by this intriguing composer. It was a transformative experience. Of course, there were these Romantic miniature jewels that I fell in love with immediately. I wanted to play some Etudes, and they were among the pieces that really made me work seriously at the piano for the first time; sight-reading skills will not suffice when facing this level of difficulty. That was a turning point where I really started to enjoy practicing. Vers la Flamme, which Horowitz called “psychedelic music,” was also featured on this disc, as were the Ninth and Tenth Sonatas. I was pretty conservative in taste at this time, and had hardly played any 20th century music at all. I didn’t understand these pieces at first, but there was something earth-shattering about them, and after repeated listenings I was bitten by the bug and started to collect recordings of this repertoire and learned a lot of it in a short time.

3) You are one of rather few musicians I know who seem completely fearless when juggling the intellectual and emotional elements of musicianship, slipping in and out of both modes at will, and using them in tandem. This also made it possible for you to talk (in another interview) about the “the healthy and liberating effect” performance practical knowledge has on the recreative process. Many pianists would, in contrast, probably think that (intellectually based) performance practical knowledge restricts (emotionally based) artistic choices and thus narrows down the large array of potential musical choices to The One choice of what “should” be done. Talking about Scriabin specifically, what are the performance-practical key points, and how are they “liberating” for you when you play his music?

One thread I have found throughout performance practice studies is rhythmic flexibility, and this is nowhere more germane, and essential to successful interpretation, than in Scriabin. There may be no more accurately recorded rubato than the Scriabin piano rolls as prepared by Pavel Lobanov, including a beat-by-beat metronome graph of tempo fluctuations. Anatole Leikin’s study of this material relates his ebb and flow quite convincingly to musical logic. As a performer, I always felt (intuitively, or emotionally) that Scriabin’s music needs extremely strong characterization through colors and timings, and when I play, being able to trust the authenticity of such an approach is quite liberating.

4) In the well-known film documentary about Horowitz in Moscow, a little scene shows the pianist entering a room to play on Scriabin’s own piano. He lifts the lid, makes a face, and says “Bechstein” in a disappointed tone of voice. He then sits down and plays nevertheless. What are your experiences playing Scriabin on different pianos?

I am speculating, but it’s possible the Bechstein may have been Scriabin’s preferred instrument, since he owned one in his residence off Arbat Street in Moscow for his last years. He also went to Bechstein’s when he needed to practice in London, where he enjoyed his greatest public successes. I did get to play an all-Scriabin recital on a fantastic Bechstein piano at Chatham University that was re-broadcast on WQED-FM’s Performance in Pittsburgh. I am accustomed to playing this repertoire on Steinway and Steinway-type pianos, which do have many advantages in this music, generating a rich and powerful sonority and highlighting parts of these complex textures. However, I must say it was quite a treat to play that Bechstein, which made many new things possible. In my understanding, Bechstein pianos effectively combine German and English characteristics, and even this 20th century instrument was a delight for making a veiled and colorful Romantic sonority. Clearer and less heavy attacks, a slight after-ring, and greater distinctions between the registers made it easier to produce the kind of chiaroscuro effects that are often effective in this music. It is also nice to feel comfortable playing at times without pedal without fear of dryness. Since Scriabin was not known as a powerful player but was renowned for his magical sonority with many pedal shadings, it stands to reason that these features would have made a good fit for his performing style.

5) One reason for this interview is obviously your planned participation at Westfield’s Forte/Piano Festival (in a joint anniversary concert for Scriabin and Sibelius, together with Tuija Hakkila and Miri Yampolsky). What is special about bringing Scriabin to this festival?

The festival promises to be an extraordinary event on many levels. It is great to bring this cherished repertoire to any audience, of course, but it is particularly interesting to play to an audience that is keenly attuned to performance practice issues. Scriabin may not be often studied along the lines we apply to earlier eras, but in fact many of those techniques work quite effectively in this repertoire.

6) You have issued all of Scriabin’s sonatas on a set of highly acclaimed CDs. At Cornell, you are playing other works: Préludes, Poèmes, Études and other pieces. Will you record this repertoire as well?

I very well might, and the critical response has certainly been most encouraging. I don’t have a specific plan yet for which pieces or when, but I have a good number of these pieces in my fingers and they could make for some interesting future projects.

7) What will you do in the remainder of this “Scriabin year”?

I have a number of Scriabin recitals planned in various locations including the complete sonatas in two concerts in Philadelphia, a week’s tour of the midwest, performances at Boston College and Ithaca College, and at the diMenna Center in New York. There may be some more to come in 2016 as well. I am also working to co-author a new book on Scriabin for Rowman and Littlefield, together with John Bell Young and Lincoln Ballard - my own role being primarily to discuss interpretive challenges and the recorded tradition. It’s meant to be both a friendlier introduction to the composer for the uninitated and a more reliable work of scholarship than what is readily available at present. We feel that some new work on Scriabin in English is overdue!

Thanks very much for this interview, and I am looking forward to hearing your concert!

For the program of the Scriabin & Sibelius concert at the Forte/Piano Festival, please visit You can also visit Matthew Bengtson online at

Reprinted from the Newsletter of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, Vol. XXVI, number 2, Summer 2015, edited by Tilman Skowroneck, with kind permission from Tilman Skowroneck and the Westfield Center.

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