British pianist Anthony Hewitt performs the complete piano preludes of iconic Russian composer Alexander Scriabin.
Inspired by the 100th anniversary of Scriabin’s death in 2015, Hewitt immersed himself in the composer’s world by memorising all 90 of the preludes, which he describes as having “an incredible depth and variety of material, each with its own very distinctive character and mood”.
The preludes span Scriabin’s career, beginning in a lush Romantic style before transitioning towards the post-tonal soundworld for which he is perhaps most well-known.
Anthony Hewitt is regarded as one of Britain’s finest pianists, and since winning the prestigious William Kapell Competition in Washington DC has enjoyed a prolific career spanning two decades, including concerto appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra in the USA and in the UK with the English Chamber and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras.
It is often implied that Scriabin’s greatness lies in how he evolved a strikingly advanced musical language from a style inherited from Chopin. Indeed, given that the great but short-lived Polish-pianist died more than 22 years before the Russian composer’s birth, Scriabin’s development is all the more remarkable, from his first acknowledged masterpiece – the Etude in C-Sharp Minor, composed in 1887 when he was 15 – to the eerie world of his final set of Preludes, composed in 1914, which anticipate Messiaen’s harmonic language by some thirty years. Yet such an assessment does less than justice to the prodigiously gifted composer-pianist who so astonished his professors at the Moscow Conservatory.
After first studying piano under Georgy Konyus, then with Nikolai Zverev (who also taught Rachmaninov), Scriabin entered the Conservatory in 1888, aged 16. He rapidly became the darling of several of his teachers – notably Sergey Taneyev, who taught him theory, and Vasily Safonov, the head of the Conservatory who oversaw Scriabin’s piano studies. Safonov on occasion left Scriabin to his own devices while he took a rest, and would hear some remarkable improvisation “not quite in C-Sharp Minor and yet it was not in A Major”. Scriabin’s earliest preludes sound as if they grew out of those fluent and inventive extemporisations. The first, Op. 2 No. 2, is companion piece to the C-Sharp Minor Etude previously mentioned (though itself written two years later). The next, Scriabin’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor for left hand only, Op. 9, was composed after Scriabin sprained his right hand in attempting to master Balakirev’s Islamey, and skillfully creates the impression of at least two hands at work. Then comes Scriabin’s first great masterpiece – the Op. 11 set of 24 Preludes, many written while he was touring Europe on a rest cure. No. 14 in E-Flat Minor, for instance, was directly inspired by the great mountain stream at Bastei, a short steamboat ride away from Dresden.
By then, Scriabin enjoyed the generous patronage of the publisher Mitrofan Belyayev, who persuaded him to attempt composing a set of 48 Preludes – that is, two sets of 24 following the example of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Having collated a complete set for Op. 11 – divided into four books of six – Scriabin then compiled the first book of six for a subsequent set (eventually published as Op. 13), but only finished a total of 23 of that set’s projected 24, dividing the remaining 17 completed preludes among Opp. 15, 16 and 17.
The Four Preludes, Op. 22, were composed in 1897, the year of Scriabin’s first marriage. His doting aunt, Lyubov (who had brought up Scriabin after his mother’s death), recalled that he played the first of these preludes “with such a radiant and blissful face”; yet one may also hear Scriabin now straining at the tonal parameters outlined by Chopin’s music. Even the sweet-toned third prelude seems to defer resolution for longer than usual. Wagner, the composer most famous for stretching such boundaries, is an unmistakable influence in Op. 27, composed in 1900 when Scriabin was composing his ambitious six-movement First Symphony. In 1903, Scriabin’s truly distinctive harmonic style emerges. In the same year as he completed his Divine Poem (Symphony No. 3), he composed no less than 19 preludes, divided over Opp. 31, 33, 35, 37 and 39. These map out Scriabin’s typical emotional territory – by turns other-worldly and aggressive (Scriabin sharing with many of his contemporaries a desire for Scythian-style ferocity to blow away bourgeois complacency), yet with moments of blissful lyricism such as the two preludes which open Op. 33. The following year, 1904, Scriabin abandoned his wife for one of his piano pupils, Tatyana Schloezer. The Prelude he wrote that year, the third of his Op. 45 pieces, finds him at something of a stylistic as well as spiritual crossroad: he was preoccupied with the premiere of his Divine Poem, which he – in the spirit of the Symbolists who preached that art, particularly music, presented a potential gateway to a higher reality – believed would instigate a “happening” when actually performed. The even more individual world of Poem of Ecstasy is explored extensively in Scriabin’s next clutch of opuses (Opp. 48-56). Rather than suffering the former torments of composing, Scriabin now felt bliss as he experienced his own mastery: “I am God” he wrote in a personal notebook.
After years shuttling between Europe and the United States, Scriabin and Tatyana finally returned to Russia for good in 1910. Pale, delicate in health and paranoid about infection, Scriabin nonetheless believed he was destined to save the world through his music. While he performed his earlier, more conventional piano works in public, he worked at his would-be magnum opus Mysterium (never completed), and composed his last, genuinely mysterious piano works including his last two sets of Preludes, Opp. 67 and 74.
"...brought alluringly to life... Hewitt sounds completely in his element" - BBC Music Magazine
"Hewitt proves a faithful guide to every stage of this music journey ... his command and understanding go this neglected music is unmistakable." - Andrew Clements, The Guardian
“ Not since Gordon Fergus- Thompson’s outstanding Scriabin series for ASV has the other-worldly, deeply sensual aspects of this extraordinary music been brought so alluringly to life. Where other pianists have a tendency to play up the profound debt owed to Chopin in the earlier sets (Opp.11-17), Anthony Hewitt looks forward to the psychedelic dreamworlds conjured by Scriabin’s later work”.
“…the G major “Languido” from Op. 39 has rarely floated so free of earthly constraints, as Hewitt creates this extraordinary impression of merely breathing on the keys. No less captivating is the “Poetico con delizio” second prelude of the Op. 48 set and the opening Andante of Op. 67.” - Julian Haylock, BBC Music