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Alexander Scriabin

Complete Etudes

Lydia Jardon, piano


Etude, opus 2 n°1

Etude, opus 2 n°1

12 Etudes, opus 8

A capriccio, con forza
Con grazia
Presto tenebroso, agitato
Lento (Tempo rubato)
Alla ballata

8 Etudes, opus 42


Etude, opus 49 n°1

Etude, opus 49 n°1

Etude, opus 56 n°4

Etude, opus 56 n°4

Etudes, opus 65

Allegro fantastico
Molto vivace

Total playing time: 48’25
Production, Sound Engineer: Jean-Marc Laisné.
Technicien: Albert Diringer.
Piano: Bösendorfer.
Recorded in Charrat Muses, Switzerland, 19-20 December 2005.
Booklet: André Lischke.

AR RE-SE 2006-1

On the verge of the ineffable: Scriabin’s Etudes, between poetry and virtuosity

Born in 1872, dead in 1915 at the early age of 43, Alexandr Scriabin was a schoolmate of Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory, where he worked on theory and composition with Serge Taneiev and Anton Arenski, and on piano with Vassili Safonov. He taught there himself from 1898 to 1905. His life was broken up into sometimes rather long trips and stays abroad. Between 1904 and 1908 he lived in France, Switzerland, Belgium and the United States. In 1907 he participated in the Diaghilev concerts in Paris alongside many of his Russian elders and contemporaries (Rimski-Korsakov, Glazounov, Rachmaninov, Blumenfeld). In Brussels, he frequented theosophic circles where he found similar ideas to his own, being himself passionate about spiritualist philosophy and striving to experience a mystical revelation – typical attitudes of Russian symbolism during his time; the same goes for his theories about the relationship between sounds and colors, that he experiments with in his symphonic poem Prometheus or the Poem of Fire where a “keyboard of lights” projects rays of colors on a screen that are supposed to correspond to the harmonies heard at the same time. The evolution of Scriabin’s musical language directly relates to the whole of his research and his aspirations: to exacerbate perception by giving maximum intensity to frequency vibrations, creating harmonies that had been unusual so far (even though we can find early traces of this with Wagner and especially in Liszt’s late works) and that progressively abandon classic tonality in favor of a system that stretches far into the 20th century sound research. This would notably be elaborated on by the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s with Nikolaï Roslavets at the helm.

Moreover, Scriabin appears as an exception among Russian composers by his double refusal to resort to folklore and to orientalism (both of which represented two powerful pillars of Russian music) as well as by his disinterest in vocal music for the exclusive benefit of piano and orchestra.

Following in the legacy of the styles of Chopin and of Liszt, Scriabin worked abundantly with the small form by creating a series of preludes, etudes, mazurkas, and various other pieces. But he is also the one who ressurrected the sonata, which had been used little since the mid-19th century, with ten works that take him from the form with many movements to the one-piece poem.

Scriabin’s etudes, regrouped in sets, except for some pieces that are isolated or integrated into other collections, mark out the main stages of his life and language. Like the etudes Chopin wrote, and also like the ones Debussy was to write soon thereafter, they each are generally constructed after a technical and/or expressive, paraphrased and developed formula. Scriabin uses as much finger as wrist virtuosity, multiplying the quick and perilous jumps, the staccati and the hammering, the arpeggi and the long-stretched chords (even though he himself had small hands!), and strengthening the difficulties with the stacking of different rhythmic values (for example quintuplets on one hand and triplets on the other); this polyrhythmics of Scriabin’s is related to the complexity of his harmony; both tend to break with the established boundaries. Next to this are a few remarkable studies which are, on the contrary, as with Chopin, not dedicated to technique but to sound quality, phrasing, and the highlighting of harmonic metamorphoses.

It is precisely one of these non virtuoso pieces that chronologically begins the list of Scriabin’s etudes. The Andante in C sharp minor, op.2 N°1 (the first of a small tryptic where it is followed by a Prelude and an Impromptu), with a gravity that would link it more to a nocturn, or better yet, to a meditation, dates from 1887. The composer is then a fifteen-year old and knowing this one is even more struck by the promising richness in his harmonies.

Seven years later (1894), the set of twelve Études op.8 is the work of a young master already well into his first creative period. Meanwhile, his ten Mazurkas op.3, the Allegro appassionato op.4, and his first -sonata op.6 were composed. A cycle that directly sets the question of his tonal choices. We can observe here two particularities. Firstly, an equal number of pieces in major and in minor, although without a principle of alternance. In addition, Scriabin begins, for the first six etudes, to follow the fifths circle backwards (C sharp, F sharp, B minor then B major, E, A), the tonal order becoming freer after the 7th.

After the first etude Allegro, well-rhythmed and light at the same time, where triplets bounce off of their two first repeated chords, passing from the right hand to the left hand and adorned with counterpoints, the second, indicated A capriccio, con forza, is of a polyrhythmical character but its indication also reminds us that these traceries should not be vague but, on the contrary, should underscore their irregularity; the character of the piece is additionally accentuated by some astonishingly hispanic turns which are an exception for Scriabin. The swell of the third Tempestoso, which works both hands in shifted octaves, around the pivot of the index, successively brings to the surface a frenzied dance rhythm, then a soothing cantilena. Once again a constant polyrhythmics in the N°4 Piacevole, but woven in a finer and more lyrical way than in the N°2. One of the most seductive of the cycle, N°5 Brioso in E major, with very Chopinian accents, demands quick and light shifting before narrowing in on triplets in the second part. We remain in Chopin’s wake with the 6th Con grazia, which features a series of sixths on the right hand. The tense N°7 Presto tenebroso, agitato, is an etude for the left hand, with broken arpeggio triplets covering large intervals and letting the right hand chords fall on the last note; the central part is slower and lets out a choral blurred by muted grumblings of octaves in the bass tone. Some respite comes with the Lento of the 8th in A flat major, an etude on harmonies where the chords are ornated with more animated and connected lines in the last part which is written in the guise of a variation. The culmination of the cycle is the 9th Alla ballata in D sharp minor, whose execution is ruthless on the wrist, where everything is in leaps and in cascades of octaves and chords, as perilous in terms of precision as for the athletic endurance they require; as in the N°7, the central episode is in a choral form and its rhythm is accentuated by the anticipation of the bass part.

The 10th etude Allegro is hardly easier but works difficulties of another nature, a race of thirds with the right hand and immense strides with the left hand. It is interesting to compare it to the etudes also devoted to thirds by Chopin (op.25 N°6) and by Debussy (N°2)… A second meditative pause is provided by the N°11 in B flat minor Andante cantabile, whose melody, with its first interpolation that finishes on a fourth, prompted certain Russian musicologists to comparisons with popular song intonations, a feature that is, however, unusual for Scriabin. The crowning achievement is the famous Étude in D sharp minor Patetico, a brief epic ballad where once again comparisons with Chopin surface, evoking both his Révolutionnaire etude and his 24th Prelude in D minor.

Just as important for their place in Scriabin’s work as the preceding cycle, the eight Études op.42 date from 1903 and immediately precede the 3rd symphony Divine Poem in his catalogue. Noteworthy here are an evolution in language accentuating the harmonic and dynamic processes previously observed, a lesser presence of Chopin’s legacy, but sometimes, nevertheless, a flashback expressing itself in beautiful melodic inspirations of the purest 19th century character.

The rhythmic superpositions which are the author’s signature are found again in the N°1 Presto (D flat major). In a 3/4 time signature, the right hand plays eighth-note triplets and the left hand quarter-note quintuplets, all of which are on large intervals, with returns of accidental notes on natural notes. The very brief N°2 is peculiar in that it lacks any verbal tempo indication, replaced by a simple metronomic indication: 112 beats per minute (quarter notes); a motive that starts with a dotted rhythm adds itself to left-hand quintuplets. By its enigmatic laconicism this page seems to announce Prokofiev’s upcoming Fugitive Visions. Also very short, but because of its speed (Prestissimo, F sharp major), the N°3 is often nicknamed “the Gnat”: a shudder of measured trills, swapped between both hands, constantly remaining in the treble scale of the keyboard, with an impalpable finesse in texture – a true chiseled gem! With the N°4, which remains in the same tonality, we come across one of Scriabin’s few lyrical etudes (Andante), situated by their contents between a romance and a nocturn. A welcome respite before attacking the N°5 (Affanato, in C sharp minor), the absolute summit of the cycle and maybe of all of the etudes of the master, who played it frequently in his performances. (Allegretto). It is an authentic poem and actually more than an etude in the pedagogical sense of the term. Above a grumbling of arpeggi looms an uneasy, abrupt, obsessional theme that occasionally flies away. As a response, a magnificent melody rises up, vibrant and passionate, and the emotional atmosphere it creates suddenly brings Scriabin closer to his schoolmate, younger than he by one year, Sergei Rachmaninov; this feeling is further reinforced by the varied reexposition with an increased sound density and the bell ring effect brought on by the powerful chord swaying in the bass part. The 6th etude (Esaltato, D flat major) seems to contain, in the contours of its theme, some reminiscences of the previous as well as of the second etude of this collection. The 7th (Agitato, F minor) is once again a short page, probably less remarkable in musical terms and more specifically didactic: a continuous formula of arpeggi in up-and-down sixteenth notes on the left hand, and another difficulty on the right hand, where triplets challenge finger spread (alternatively two-five, thumb) around sixth intervals. The last etude (Allegro, E flat major), in ABA form, begins as an impromptu; between two parts of a quick and repetitive movement, the central episode suddenly offers the contrast of a choral, evolving towards a very vocal melodic declamation, with a phrase that seems to come from a solemn opera arioso.

As though lost among two opuses that bring together variously named pieces are the two very short Études op.49 N°1 (1905) and op.56 N°4 (1908). The first, without an indication of tempo but marked 152 beats per minute (quarter notes), provides an exceptional, rigorous homophony between both hands, on spasmodic cells of abridged triplets (two notes followed by silence). The second, Presto, of a rather simple conception, is a race punctuated with jumps and rhythmed with chords that demand the execution of quick arpeggi.

The final delivery of Scriabin’s etudes plunge us into the heart of his last period. After his symphonic poem Prometheus (1910), he only writes for the piano. The three Études op.65, finished in 1912, are peculiar in that each are composed after an interval, the ninth, the seventh, and the fifth, respectively. The first is one of the most dreaded because of the tension that it creates in the extensor muscles. It is a known fact that its series of ninths made it unperformable for its author, whose hands were too small! It provides a constant irregularity of the discourse (a rather usual thing for Scriabin), alternating vertiginious surges and bursts with slowed-down passages and stops on chords. A certain lightening comes with the 2nd etude, maintained for the most part on piano nuances, but harmonically just as harsh due to the omnipresent major seventh. The whole cycle can be compared to a brief sonata in three movements, with an initial Allegro, a second movement (Allegretto) in half-tones, then a Molto vivace finale, whose whirlpools presently conjure up a mighty energy, in leaps and in broken chords, which once again recalls how much the fire element has always been organically linked to Scriabin’s nature.

André Lischke
Translation: Jennifer Arenson-Escorcia

The press covers it !

« Like all artists, Lydia Jardon is an expert of the most difficult superpositions. She is at home with Scriabin, just as she was with Debussy’s “La Mer” (a piano solo version!): a stacking of timbres, colours, rhythms and expressions. Her passion, her suppleness, her enthusiasm and her devilish technique fit well with these pieces that are always a little feverish and ill-sounding. How is it possible to be so volcanic while being in control? And to keep a free wrist in such burning effusions? It’s a mystery... »

Le Nouvel Observateur, 20th april 2006, Jacques Drillon

« From the first measure of the Opus 2 No.1, one is convinced by the exceptional commitment of the line. Lydia Jardon has a sound of her own, a quite exceptionally generous and lyrical one. She “electrifies” each note, makes it a strong human voice, to the point that the lyricism is everywhere, except maybe where one would expect it since when such an expressive commitment is vested upon each note, the traditional climax has to seem less “committed”. Thus in the beginning of the famous Etude op. 42 No.5, which other pianists play in a rather discrete way, there is an underlying “insistent voice”. When the culminating theme finally comes, Lydia Jardon plays it as a sentimental yet sotto voce ritornello, with a contained lyricism, as though reminiscent of a past where it was a poignant but already muffled memory. The detached notes might not always possess maximal clarity, but that is not the point here. When the piece requires a more staccato counterpoint, this staccato turns into a wandering vocal strangeness, as in Opus 42 No.3. It is felicitous that the pianist has been able to keep such a passionate and natural touch, worlds away from the usual domestications. »

Le Monde de la Musique, May 2006, Jacques Amblard