Still, Garrick Ohlsson’s powerful, authoritative recital at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday was an opportunity to rethink this “failure of no little brilliance,” as another contemporary wrote.Viewing a Composer in a New Light – Garrick Ohlsson Sets Scriabin in His Russian Context02 Feb 2015
“It may be true that the Russian composer is too far advanced for the present generation and that his doctrine and music will be accepted in years to come,” the Musical Courier wrote of Alexander Scriabin in March 1915, a month before that composer’s early death. “But as the writer is not a reader of the future, the work is condemned for the present.”
A century later, Scriabin’s doctrine of salvation through multisensory religious works of art hasn’t caught on. But elements of his technical vision have, whether in performances of his “Prometheus,” which deploy the light shows he explicitly scored, or even in our current fashion for blending notes with abstract video effects. As importantly, since a revival in the 1970s, his muscular, impressionistic music has been widely played, especially by his fellow pianists.
Still, Garrick Ohlsson’s powerful, authoritative recital at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday was an opportunity to rethink this “failure of no little brilliance,” as another contemporary wrote. Surrounding Scriabin with other radicals — Liszt, Debussy, Stockhausen — would be one way to do that. In London recently, Mr. Ohlsson simply devoted a whole concert to Scriabin’s music. Here he took a different approach, setting Scriabin in his Russian context, with Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff.
Rachmaninoff was born just a year later than Scriabin, and Mr. Ohlsson’s command of texture and line made the “Variations on a Theme of Corelli” (1931) seem darker and more secretive than they often appear. After his Chopin-esque early works, Scriabin could have taken Rachmaninoff’s route, tinged with lyrical conservatism, or perhaps the clarifying vigor of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, who emerged toward the end of Scriabin’s life. In Prokofiev’s “Four Pieces” (1908-12) and “Four Études” (1909), Mr. Ohlsson’s percussive attack was refined even at the composer’s most abrasive, as in the circling “Despair” and the manic “Suggestion Diabolique” from the “Pieces.”
Instead, Scriabin became an ever more individual — and odd — composer. In this music Mr. Ohlsson avoids the voracity of Marc-André Hamelin and the rhythmic energy of Yuja Wang, preferring a more polished, genteel way with pieces that can easily overheat. Perhaps the Seventh Sonata (1911-2) — the “White Mass” — needed more evangelical fervor, but velvety force and shimmering, candlelit colors brought out the majesty and mystery of Scriabin’s faith. Mr. Ohlsson’s patience turned the showpiece Fifth Sonata (1907) into a smoldering fireball, erupting in thunderous, magnesium brightness at the end. If anything, four miniatures were more affecting, particularly the dappled twilight of “Fragilité” (1906) and the angelic longing of “Désir” (1908).