Pianist Yeritsyan offers a fresh take on Scriabin sonatas

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 17.12.2015

Alexander Scriabin’s ten piano sonatas serve as a guide to his journey from Romantic to atonal composition, 20 years in the making. His innovations took him into obscure, abstract territory but rescued him from being labeled a mere Chopin copycat, his starting point.

Alexander Scriabin, a drawing by Michael Johnson, the author

A new CD of the complete piano sonatas played by Varduhi Yeritsyan (Paraty 915136) demonstrate this sweep, beginning in 1893 and continuing to 1913.  

Ms. Yeritsyan has injected an innovation of her own. Contrary to most recordings of this oeuvre (and there are many), she organizes the collection according to her perceptions of light and dark coloristic shadings, not chronology. To the listener, the new sequencing makes excellent sense. The tracks cohere musically and avoid the jarring contrasts that actually occurred in Scriabin’s troubled evolution.

Program notes by Ms. Yeritsyan reveal her diligent research into the composer’s life, which she recapitulates chronologically. The mood of Sonata No. 1 in F-minor indicates, she says, that the Funebre movement may reflect the “severe nervous crisis” he was suffering in 1893. Being a dark selection, she offers this on the second CD, for which she borrows the label “Black Mass”, a sobriquet originally applied posthumously to Sonata No. 9. 

The first CD, labeled “White Mass”, opens with No. 10, which Scriabin called his “insects’ sonata”. The trills and tremolos evoke “a sensuality as subtle as it is ardent”. It is a small leap to imagine the insect world.

His break with Romantic traditions demarked his move toward individuality.  Critic Harold Schonberg wrote in his book The Lives of the Great Composers, “Nobody had conceived of this kind of piano writing.”

Ms. Yeritsyan seems made for Scriabin’s virtuoso world of color and tone. She respects his Chopinesque phase and turns poetic in her fluent approach to the single-movement later works where traditional structures are absent.  One of her strengths is to unify the ideas in each sonata from opening chords to climax into a musical whole.

To appreciate these muscular yet richly colorful creations it is best to drink in the music uncritically over multiple hearings. I played her discs repeatedly for a week, never tiring of her brooding or brilliant effects.

Ms. Yeritsyan has rapidly established herself as an accomplished interpreter of challenging solo and chamber repertoire, from Bach through the Armenians, the Russians and the French. Her expressive, dramatic style at the keyboard is apparent in these excerpts:

She studied originally in her native Armenia at the Tchaikovsky Specialized Music School, then on to the Paris Conservatoire where she graduated with honors and completed a double postgraduate cycle. She was mentored by Brigitte Engerer.

Her commitment to Russian music led to her interest in Scriabin, with all his bold innovations and all his human faults. In this centenary year of his death, commemorative recitals and CD releases have proliferated, among which Mrs. Yeritsyan’s offering stands proud.

Even the literary press has taken an interest in the controversial old Russian, recalling how he was shamed and humiliated early in his composing career by being labeled a ‘Romantic anachronism”. Princeton University Prof. Simon Morrison wrote recently in the Times Literary Supplement that Scriabin sought to express the “boundlessness of desire”, leading him to “make up scales, invent new sounds and search for colorations between chord and color”.

Ms. Yeritsyan fearlessly rises to this challenge.


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