The figure of the virtuoso pianist-composer used to be a very familiar one throughout Europe; the art of improvising on a given melody, of inventing preludes for introducing a thoroughly-composed work, and of dazzling the hearers with technically demanding pieces which were specifically tailored to the performer’s skills were all indispensable requirements for a touring virtuoso who played pieces of his or her own creation.
This seemed to be one of the goals in the life of Alexander Nikolaević Scriabin, who came from a noble and aristocratic background but who had an early and deep fascination for music. His mother was a gifted concert pianist and the descendant of an ancient lineage; however, if she undeniably transmitted her talent to her son, she was unable to follow and nurture his musical education, since she prematurely died when the child was just one year old. Another woman by the same name as his mother’s, Lyubov (Alexander’s aunt) would instead take care of the boy’s first steps in the musical world. Seemingly, the child showed an early predisposition for music; he loved to listen to it (particularly when played on the piano), to play it and also to create various kinds of artistic performances, with the fantasy and creativity of a child.
Later, he became a student of a famous and rather stern piano pedagogue, Nikolaj Zverev; among Scriabin’s fellow students under Zverev was none other than Sergej Rachmaninov, along with other budding musicians who would in turn gain celebrity for their virtuoso pianism. At the age of ten, in 1882, Scriabin was accepted as a military cadet, in spite of his sickly physique and of his skinny appearance. Fortunately, however, his talent was acknowledged by both his schoolteachers and his fellow cadets, so that it compensated for his physical shortcomings.
At the Conservatory of Moscow, Scriabin had the opportunity of studying with some of the major pedagogues of the era, including A. Arenskij and Sergej Taneev. Scriabin’s first compositions date from his student years, and they already reveal his fervid imagination, his daring harmonic experiments and his mastery of the technical aspects of piano playing and piano writing. At the same time, Chopin’s poetic world clearly appealed to the young musician: even considering the differences in age, upbringing, situation, history and geography, it is undeniable that the model for Scriabin’s pianism and for many of his compositions is found in those by Chopin.
This is particularly clear in the case of Scriabin’s 24 Preludes op. 11, mostly written between 1894 and 1896. Both their title and their number claim membership in a “club” which officially started with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Forty-Eight (i.e. the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier, comprising twenty-four preludes and fugues each, one for each semitone, both in the major and in the minor mode). Bach’s model was quickly imitated, by some of the greatest composers ever but also by a plethora of lesser-known musicians. One of the heights in the tradition of composing twenty-four piano Preludes was undeniably represented by Chopin’s set, dating from the last period of his life, when he was hoping to recover from his poor health in Mallorca; he had brought with him a copy of Bach’s collection, and he took constant inspiration from it. Other composers who later tried their hand with this challenging task included Claude Debussy and Dmitrj Šostaković, to name but two; and Sergej Rachmaninov himself is highly regarded for his masterful creations in this field.
As concerns Scriabin, he constantly returned to the form of the Prelude throughout his life; while his Prelude op. 2 (also recorded here) maintains the prelude’s true vocation (i.e. of opening the way for another work), and the same can be said of Prelude op. 9, his later opuses of Preludes seem to understand this term as simply designing a short piano work, self-contained and developing a clear musical idea in a relatively concise fashion.
In the Preludes op. 11, however, Scriabin demonstrates that this musical genre, deeply bound to the concept of improvisation, was also understood (in Bach’s and Chopin’s wake) as contributing to a large-scale form (the set of Preludes), which was instead carefully planned, painstakingly assembled, and harmoniously built. As is testified by Scriabin’s own precise annotations about the place and date of their composition, the individual Preludes were very varied in their origins and occasions of composition; however, their selection and their reworking with the purpose in mind of collating them in a set of twenty-four reveal Scriabin’s ambitious plans and his will to pay homage and adhere to the august model of his predecessors.
The earliest work of op. 11 is the fourth Prelude, composed by a sixteen-years-old Scriabin in 1888; by following the dates and places of composition of the others, one sees a map of Europe progressively unfolding under one’s eyes, from Germany to Switzerland, from the Netherlands to today’s Ukraine. The ordering of these pieces follows that established in Chopin’s model, as they proceed by fifths with an alternation of major and minor keys; moreover, the twenty-four pieces constitute four great groups, each made by six individual pieces. Among these, No. 4 is worth mentioning, because it bears the inscription “Moscow, Lefortovo, 1888”; however, it is Scriabin’s own adaptation of his unfinished Ballad in B-minor Anh. 14 (1887), unpublished, but also included in this Da Vinci Classics album. The young Scriabin also penned a poem, illustrating his feelings: “Beautiful country / And life is different here… / Here there is no place for me… / There, I hear voices, / I see a world of blessed souls…”. Other notable pieces of the set include, among the many more which would deserve a mention, No. 3, which once more makes an explicit reference to Chopin’s piece in the same key; No. 6, possibly reminiscent of another great Romantic composer, Schumann (who was in turn a Bach devotee); No. 13, with its warm but opaque sonorities; No. 14, with the unusual time signature of 5/8; and No. 19, with its rhythmic and polyphonic complexity. By then, the composer had already achieved a full mastery of the harmonic language and of the technical aspects of piano performance and composition; the varied moods and sudden changes of emotional context which enliven the set are a beautiful creative expression of his youthful passions, vented through music and receiving an artistic shape through the composer’s genius.
This is already apparent in some of his earlier works, including the small set of op. 2, whose opening Etude already reveals the young musician’s novelty of vision: the modulations are audacious, the melody has a wide horizon and a noble elevation, the colours are quintessentially Romantic, even though some seeds of Scriabin’s later fascination for the sound of the fourths are already discernible here. By contrast, the two other pieces of the set are simpler; the Prelude is very brief, but it is made memorable by the opening gesture, reminiscent of a horn call. The Impromptu à la Mazur is an unpretentious but delightful piece, once more bearing the clear mark left by the figure and artistry by Frédéric Chopin.
The same inspiration is evidently found in the pair of Prelude and Nocturne for the left hand alone, op. 9. The tradition of writing pieces for just one hand was not yet as established as it would later become (especially after the numerous works commissioned to leading artists by pianist Paul Wittgenstein). However, while Brahms’ version of Bach’s Chaconne for the left hand alone was intended as an Etude for developing both the technique and expressiveness of the left hand (as well as for “feeling the same fatigue felt by the violinists” when they play Bach’s original work), Scriabin’s small set of two pieces was originated (as will be those commissioned by Wittgenstein) by an accident to the right hand. In Scriabin’s case, it was his own right hand that had been injured by an excessive piano practice; however, fortunately, the damage was not lasting. At the time when he wrote this piece, though, he did believe that his right hand would never recover fully; the anger and rebellion he felt when facing this (erroneous) diagnosis are expressed in his first published Piano Sonata, intended as a “cry against fate”.
The two pieces of op. 9 constitute a small gem: the Prelude is an intense plea, a heartfelt peroration; the Nocturne is skillfully written, and it seems to anticipate the style and mood of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Both works demonstrate an enviable mastery of the technical devices which a composer should use in order not to make the one-hand texture too thin. This ascetic exercise would prove to be fruitful at a later time, when Scriabin would regain the full use of his right hand, having mastered, in the meantime, the capability of creating singing lines to be played with the left hand.
This album, thus, gives us the possibility of observing the blossoming of a genius’ talent; how it developed, grew and bore fruits which have a full maturity of their own, in spite of their composer’s young age, while possessing the freshness of inspiration which characterizes that stage of human life.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Selected as one of the best graduating conservatory pianists in Italy in 2014, Alessandro Riccardi has taken part in the piano festivals at La Fenice Theater in Venice and in “Settimane Musicali al Teatro Olimpico di Vicenza.” He has toured in Italy, Mexico, Bulgaria, Poland, Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and the United States, performing as soloist and with orchestra. Among the various venues where he has performed are Palais des Congrès de Paris, Wiener Stadthalle, Arcimboldi Theater in Milan, Auditoria Forum in Barcelona, and Sursa Performance Hall in Muncie, Indiana (USA). In 2019, Alessandro performed in solo recitals and held lectures and masterclasses on Scriabin’s repertoire. His lecture recital “Alexander Scriabin, the Romantic Soul of the Early Piano Works” has been acclaimed in Mexico, Italy and the United States. He has been awarded first prizes in the VIII “Val Di Sole” National Music Competition, the XII “Bardolino” National Music Competition and the “Rotary Club Mascagni Livorno” Competition, and in 2018 he was one of the 100 selected participants of the “F. Busoni” International Piano Competition. In 2017 Alessandro was selected to play the Schumann’s Piano Concerto for a tour accompanied by the Monteverdi Symphony Orchestra. He also won the Monteverdi auditions to give piano solo recitals in the K. Penderecki Concert Hall in Radom (Poland) and in the Athanas Kurtiev Concert Hall in Kjustendil (Bulgaria). He received his Bachelor Diploma in Piano Performance with honors in 2014 at the Conservatory of Livorno “P. Mascagni” (Italy), under the supervision of Professor Marco Baraldi and Professor Monica Cecchi. Alessandro continued his piano studies with Professor Cristiano Burato at the Conservatory of Bolzano “Claudio Monteverdi” (Italy), where he obtained his Master Diploma in Piano Solo Performance with honors in 2017. He studied with Dr. Robert Palmer at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana (USA), to pursuit his Artist Diploma in Piano Performance. He further developed Chopin’s repertoire at the Karol Szymanowski Music Academy in Katowice (Poland) by attending masterclasses held by Professor Andrzej Jasinsky and Professor Wojciech Świtała. Alessandro served as a Piano Assistant at Ball State University and taught piano classes at the University of Yucatán in Merida (Mexico), the Conservatories of Livorno and Bolzano, the “Ritmi” Music School in Cecina and the “Vivaldi” Music School in Bolzano.
Alexander Scriabin: (b Moscow, 25 Dec 1871/6 Jan 1872; d Moscow, 14/27 April 1915). Russian composer and pianist. One of the most extraordinary figures musical culture has ever witnessed, Skryabin has remained for a century a figure of cultish idolatry, reactionary yet modernist disapproval, analytical fascination and, finally, aesthetic re-evaluation and renewal. The transformation of his musical language from one that was affirmatively Romantic to one that was highly singular in its thematism and gesture and had transcended usual tonality – but was not atonal – could perhaps have occurred only in Russia where Western harmonic mores, although respected in most circles, were less fully entrenched than in Europe. While his major orchestral works have fallen out of and subsequently into vogue, his piano compositions inspired the greatest of Russian pianists to give their most noteworthy performances. Skryabin himself was an exceptionally gifted pianist, but as an adult he performed only his own works in public. The cycle of ten sonatas is arguably of the most consistent high quality since that of Beethoven and acquired growing numbers of champions throughout the 20th century.