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SCRIABIN Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2, 6, 7. 4 Preludes, op. 37. Prelude in g, op. 27/1. Poème, op. 32/1. 2 Poèmes, op. 63. 2 Morceaux, op. 59. Matthew Bengtson (pn) ROMÉO 7308 (75:08)

SCRIABIN Piano Sonatas Nos. 3-5, 8-10 Matthew Bengtson (pn) ROMÉO 7232 (74:21)

The interpretive demands of Scriabin’s music do not forgive those who fail to account for its spiritual dimensions, or probe the relation between his compositional techniques and his mystical beliefs. To a remarkable extent, Scriabin succeeded in duplicating, in compositional categories, the core of his Hindu-inspired philosophy: transcendence of the ego. Within an exotic soup of chromatic, whole-tone and octatonic scales, legions of tritone-saturated, dominant-quality chords annihilate conventional harmonic function and disturb ordinary progression and resolution. As it hovers and exfoliates, the music frustrates our expectations and leaves the impression of time suspended. Here Scriabin’s sultry spirituality found an ideal vehicle for expression: the obliteration of a single key center (for centuries the Rosetta Stone of Western music) in favor of multiple, perpetually shifting centers. The prismatic harmonies, peculiar distribution of pitch material, and fragmented rhythmic configurations do not represent the religious ritualism to which they aspire so much as they reproduce it as the principle of the music’s immanent structure, giving way to the obsessive character of ritual itself.

For Scriabin, the ambiguity of this approach was to become the musical equivalent of the androgyne, or the non-ego, the governing principles of his Vedanta-driven mysticism. Thus, the great interpreter of Scriabin is a kind of translator capable of transforming himself from performer into conjurer; the richly layered, diaphanous textures demand a comprehensive command of structure, dynamics, and a rhythmic suppleness that moves beyond purely metrical considerations.

At long last, a pianist has come along who fulfills those qualifications. Matthew Bengtson has not only cultivated the transcendent technical apparatus indispensable for performing Scriabin, but has assumed intellectual responsibility for its interpretation. An adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, and Bryn Mawr Colleges, Bengtson offers some of the most authoritative and electrifying readings of the sonatas (and a few of the miniature character pieces) in memory. Here is a pianist of extraordinary depth and imagination, whose way with this music is at once unique, satisfying, and interpretively unimpeachable.

That is in large part because Bengtson is aware that the notion of Scriabin’s late music as a transitional affair, that is, a gateway between tonality and atonality, is apocryphal. That idea, long since put to rest by scholars as inadequate and technically insupportable, betrays its naiveté at every turn; it is the kind of thinking that invites rhythmically wayward, rhapsodic performances that compromise the music’s form and content. Scriabin’s music, on the contrary, fulfills the very concept of atonality for exactly the reasons described above; its cosmos of instability is energized precisely by the absence of a single, identifiable tonal center of the sort long proffered by tertiary harmony. Rather than proceeding from and returning to a grounded tonic, Scriabin’s harmonic Diaspora wastes no time spreading its wings as it fashions harmonic galaxies within galaxies. In this rarefied atmosphere, the compositional sun (an apt metaphor for the central role and function of the tonic) has no particular importance nor stability, but the gravitational attraction of black holes, which are codified in derived dominants, octatonic scales, tritones, perfect fourths, and French sixths, certainly do. Things swirl and murmur, orbit and disperse, only to burn up and evaporate in this exotic compositional atmosphere.

That said, it is the rare musical mind and even rarer pianist who, like Bengtson, is capable of mastering such complex music. After all, doing so requires a significant investment of time and study, as well as a polymath’s intellect that takes satisfaction in investigating the artistic, literary, and philosophical disciplines that inform Scriabin’s aesthetic ideology. Those pianists unwilling to throw themselves into all that are bound to fail in this repertoire. Unfortunately, self-indulgent, overly rhapsodic, rhythmically flabby, and overtly sentimental performances have not only become customary and usual, but also mistaken for informed interpretation.

In the First and Second sonatas, Bengtson’s big-boned but unsentimental approach allows him to risk tempos that some might find too fast, but which ultimately maintain their integrity. That alone, in music which predates Scriabin’s visionary late works and sticks to a tertiary script, is enough to insure that they don’t drift off course and into mere rhapsody. In these finely chiseled performances, one can trace the work’s form as it takes shape. It is rather like admiring and evaluating a great painting at just enough distance to appreciate its content while allowing the whole to move in on us.

In the assertive Third Sonata, Bengtson takes the listener on a journey unencumbered by cliché; again, in spite of a tempo that is slightly faster than that taken by other pianists, his rhythmic sensibility is relentless. Counterpoint comes alive in this reading as polyphony jumps off the page. Melodic lines, no matter their variable function, are abstracted from and then reintegrated into the whole with consummate, if unnerving skill and austerity. And what a relief that he refuses to turn the second movement of the Fourth Sonata into proto-Gershwin, which just about every pianist always does. Instead, he pays homage to the work’s fragmentary nature, flattering its litany of short, motivic units for what they are, and not for what they are not: a rhapsody.

The crown jewel of Scriabin’s middle period musical diadem, the Fifth Sonata, is a gigantic waltz whose angular syncopes Scriabin manipulates in the context of expanding and contracting meters. In this work, which adumbrates the Poem of Ecstasy, whole sequences of truncated climaxes, driven forward cumulatively in waves of rhythmic energy, breathlessly simulate orgasm. An informed interpretation is one that aims to duplicate Scriabin’s implicit eroticism in an act of symbolic consummation with the listener. Bengtson’s vivacious, now lighter than air, now blistering, account of this one-movement behemoth does full justice to the composer’s intentions. The Sixth Sonata, in the coda of which Scriabin writes a note that does not even exist on the piano, purrs along mysteriously just as it should, while the Seventh evokes Russian bells persuasively. Although I prefer a slower tempo in this sonata, one that accommodates the slim shimmer of the Egorievsky chimes at the opening and the citation of the Coronation Music from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in the coda, Bengtson’s tightly controlled, rhythmically driven view is eminently convincing.

But it is in the Eighth Sonata, which is the most difficult of the lot, that he pulls out all the stops in a performance so astonishing, deftly detailed, and rhythmically compelling, as to out-Sofronitsky Sofronitsky’s performance, which until now was incomparable. In this remarkably intense performance, Bengtson propels it relentlessly forward as if in a single breath. The Ninth and Tenth sonatas are no less intense; indeed, he invests the profusion of trills that give the Tenth its tremulous shape with new meaning with each successive appearance.

Bengtson offers a few miniatures, including the often played Poème, op. 32/1, which he plays to perfection and with incomparable elegance. Unlike Garrick Ohlsson, whose recent recording of this and other poems fetishizes the music at every turn, he understands the importance of the contrapuntal melody, wherein a single melodic line implies two or more. Elsewhere, the Deux Morceaux and the fragile Poèmes, op 63, are exquisitely drawn.

Bengtson is a Scriabinist for the 21st century, one who embraces the interpretive objectives most valued by his contemporaries among composers, theorists, and performers. Much the same can be said of Sofronitsky’s performances of Scriabin in the context of 20th-century Soviet culture, to the extent that, for all their fantasy, they conveyed longing for an aristocratic, pre-Soviet past. Bengtson, who imitates no one, has synthesized the most persuasive elements that the best Scriabin interpreters - Fyodorova, Vedernikov, Zhukov, and Horowitz among them - have set forth over a century. To that end, he can now join those esteemed Scriabinists upon whom future generations can rely for definitive interpretations.

There is a certain irony in this; had I heard Bengtson’s Scriabin 40 years ago, I would not have warmed to it, impressed as I was by the artistic traditions of the day. In those days, when Scriabin interpretation, in this country especially, embraced a kind of hallucinatory stream of consciousness, Scriabin stood out as classical music’s Pied Piper. What listeners may have had in their own pipes at the time is another matter. But in the ensuing years, after much study, critical evaluation, careful listening, and experience as a performer, those of us invested in his work were persuaded by its immanent content, rather than its popular capital. For the savvy interpreter, its compositional ambiguity, especially in the late works, is not only a codification of his mystical agenda, but the key to delivering its essentially humanitarian message.

Though hardly the pianist’s fault, the sound quality of these discs struck me as a bit thin and wanting for depth and opulence. It sounds as if it was all recorded in a vacuum. However, that alone should not stop listeners from acquiring these discs, which should become part of the permanent collection of every Scriabin devotee. John Bell Young

Fanfare magazine, 2015, from

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