Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Opening the Season with Peter Orth: Scriabin & Rachmaninoff, Together Again

Peter Orth
34 years ago, Peter Orth gave the very first recital in a new concert series founded by Lucy Miller Murray being given at Market Square Presbyterian Church – and for want of a name, they decided to call it Market Square Concerts. 

Peter Orth, who's come back several times since then, returns to open our 34th Season on Saturday, October 10th, at Market Square Presbyterian Church with an all-Russian program of romantic masters – actually, a program consisting of two giants of the Russian piano world: Alexander Scriabin with his 24 Preludes, Op. 11; and Sergei Rachmaninoff with his rarely heard Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor.

Writing in The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini spoke about the tenderness and fervor of Orth's playing, describing it as “one long arc of inspiration.” In The New York Sun, Fred Kirshnit commented that “the experience seemed like one continuous essay in profundity... a commanding presence... for sheer excitement, he is difficult to surpass.”

The concert begins at 8:00 but Dr. Truman Bullard will be giving a pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15.

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When he was 10, Alexander Scriabin began to study with a well-known piano teacher in Moscow, Nikolai Zverev, who also taught at the Moscow Conservatory.

When he was 12, Sergei Rachmaninoff left St. Petersburg to study with Zverev as well, upon the advice of his mother's cousin Alexander Siloti, a pianist who had studied with the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, but at the time was in Weimar, Germany, studying with Franz Liszt.

Not that Zverev is “Ground Zero” for Peter Orth's program, but he is certainly a common denominator. Zverev himself, growing up in an aristocratic family, began his career as a civil servant which bored him and so he continued to study the piano and make it something of a career, even though he was never well-known as a performer. He took on students by audition, took no money from them, and they all lived in his house where their lessons as well as their practicing went according to strict schedules (you did not quit practicing until your three hours were up, or else). Rachmaninoff said he learned Brahms' immense set of “24 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel” in three days.

Zverev had studied with Adolf von Henselt, a German pianist who had settled in St. Petersburg in 1838 where he became Imperial Court Pianist. After studying with Johann Nepomuck Hummel (who in turn, to follow the begats, had studied with Mozart), Henselt was recognized as a specialist in the music of Chopin. Franz Liszt thought enough of his legato playing technique that he told his students to “learn the secrets of Henselt's hands,” adding later, “I could have had velvet paws like Henselt if I wanted to.”

Henselt is basically the founder of what became known as the “Russian School of Piano Playing,” and even though he had ceased to play in public after the late-1840s – supposedly a victim of extreme stage-fright – his sound was a major influence on the young Rachmaninoff.

Professor Zverev & his Students
In this photograph from the late-1880s, Nikolai Zverev sits in the center of several of his students. In the front row, first on the left in the cadet uniform, is Alexander Scriabin; the tall guy standing behind his teacher, second from the right in the back row, is Sergei Rachmaninoff.

At the time, neither student had serious thoughts of becoming anything other than a pianist, yet there was a guest at one of Zverev's weekly Sunday open-houses who was also a major influence on Rachmaninoff. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was, of course, one of the great names of Russian music and in the 1880s one of the major figures in Moscow (most of the Nationalists of the Mighty Handful or Russian Five lived in St. Petersburg). And so when, like any would-be concert pianist who was expected to write his own music, Rachmaninoff's early efforts won supportive praise from Tchaikovsky, he began to take his creative side more seriously.

In the late-1880s, Scriabin was already composing numerous short pieces under the influence of Chopin – preludes, etudes primarily but also mazurkas, waltzes, and impromptus, all titles found in Chopin's output. The 4th Prelude of the set Op. 11 was composed in 1888 when he was 16. The rest of them would be added later, most of them in 1896, 24 in all, one in each major and minor key – just like the set of 24 Preludes that Chopin wrote between 1835 and 1839.

Scriabin, 1892
For Scriabin, continuing his studies at the Moscow Conservatory where he studied piano with Vasily Safonov, theory and composition with Anton Arensky and counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev (these last two, major names in the generation after Tchaikovsky), it was something different that made him take composition seriously. Arenksy considered him a “scatterbrain” (consequently, Scriabin did not complete his composition degree) but when challenged by an even better pianist, Josef Lhevinne (who graduated at the top of their class, ahead of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin), intense practicing to improve his technique resulted in Scriabin injuring his right hand – the doctors said he would never be able to play again.

So, like Robert Schumann before him, Scriabin decided he had better work more seriously on his composing and completed his first large-scale work, a piano sonata he said was “a cry against God, against Fate” with its devastating funeral march of a finale.

He also composed a few short pieces specifically for the left hand and worked assiduously at improving his left-hand technique, much in evidence in his later music, often the bane of many a pianist trying to master his style. Eventually, he regained use of his right hand and gave a debut recital in 1894, including some of his own works. The publisher Belyayev, an advocate for Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov among others, heard this program and offered to publish Scriabin's music, taking him on a concert tour of Russia and Western Europe.

Because of Scriabin's slight frame and fragile health, more than one critic in Paris was reminded of Chopin physically, not just musically. Another critic wrote he had “an exquisite nature equally great as composer and pianist, an enlightened philosopher, all nerve and holy flame.”

By 1895, Scriabin completed a set of 12 Etudes, Op. 8, and the following year, the last thirteen preludes to make up a set of twenty-four which became his Op. 11. These were not written in “key order” the way they are published (the way Chopin organized his own Preludes, Op. 28). Spanning eight years' time, they range in mood, tempo and technical difficulty to create a great variety.

Here are two of these preludes – No. 13 in G-flat Major (composed in Moscow, 1896) performed by Scriabin himself from a Welte piano-roll recorded in 1910; and No. 8 in F-sharp Minor (composed in Paris, 1896) performed by Rachmaninoff recorded in 1929.

Of these YouTube clips, you could listen to either Mikhail Pletnev or to Evgenny Zarafiants whose playing I'm not familiar with, play all 24 preludes – the second has the benefit of showing you the score.

Rachmaninoff, meanwhile, graduated from the Conservatory in 1892, winning the “great gold medal” in composition for his opera, Aleko which was deemed such a success, the Bolshoi Opera agreed to produce it with Fyodor Chaliapin.

At 19, he was now a “free artist.”

On September 26th that year, he played a prelude of his own, a little something called the “Prelude in C-sharp Minor” (perhaps you've heard of it?). Its popularity would haunt him the rest of his life.

Rachmaninoff at Ivanovka, 1897
By the time Scriabin was putting the finishing touches on his Op. 11 Preludes in 1896, Rachmaninoff had been working on his first symphony over the past two years. Premiered in 1897, its reception – “If there were a conservatory in Hell,” Cesar Cui's review leading the attack – must be one of the most painful debuts in the history of music, as far as any composer who would go on to be regarded eventually as a great composer.

How bad was it? Well, Rachmaninoff needed to undergo psychoanalysis to regain his confidence so that by 1900 he was finally composing again – and not just any piece, but his Second Piano Concerto, perhaps one of the most beloved piano concertos out there, one so full of gorgeous tunes and incredible writing, it's hard to imagine three years earlier, its composer was ready to give up.

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Since Scriabin had already written the piece we're going to hear on this program, it's unnecessary for this post to go into detail about music he wrote later. While some listeners unfamiliar with his history – and what an unusual history it is – might be put off by the reputation his later music would earn, there is a mystical, spiritual quality that is only hinted at in this music composed before he was in his mid-20s. That he died at the age of 43 is another one of those tragedies, considering the direction his music was headed in could easily have changed the course of 20th Century music as much as Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok were to do.

But all that – and the revolutions that overthrew the world that nurtured both composers – was in the future.

Meanwhile, Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto began making a name for him in The West where, curiously, Tchaikovsky's music had paved the way as “what Russian music should sound like,” “an art in tonal purples and blacks,” an impression also helped by the reputation of great Russian novelists of the late-19th Century, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. It appeared, now, that young Rachmaninoff would follow in these same tragic footsteps.

As revolution began to fester in Russia – 1905 was an especially bad year for strikes and riots (not to mention the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War) – Rachmaninoff tried to avoid politics yet, as a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow where everyone from the orchestra, the choir, the ballet dancers to the stage-hands were embroiled in the hot topics of the day concerning social and political reform, he could not be unaffected by it. Several theaters were closed for fear of bombs and someone shouting “down with the monarchy” in the midst of a performance of Glinka's classic opera, A Life for the Tsar was enough to turn everything “into a battlefield with hats, coats, umbrellas and galoshes flying through the air.”

Rachmaninoff, 1910
Unhappy with the situation at work, its distractions on his time to compose, and concerned for the safety of his new family, Rachmaninoff decided to leave Russia temporarily in 1906 and, like Tchaikovsky before him when the going got personally rough, went to Italy. Considering the impact leaving Russia behind in 1917 would later have on him, how did this separation from his homeland affect him?

Despite his physical appearance and stoic expression, Rachmaninoff was a mask in many ways (Stravinsky would later describe him as "a six-and-a-half-foot scowl"). He made a rare confession to a friend: “I am a most ordinary and uninteresting man” - “there is no critic in the world who is more doubtful about me than myself” - “if ever I had faith in myself, that was a long time ago, in my youth.” In a letter from 1912 he wrote, “I am afraid of everything – mice, rats, beetles, oxen, murderers. I am frightened when a strong wind blows and howls in the chimney, when I hear raindrops on the window pain; I am afraid of the darkness...”

Suddenly, in Italy he was faced with decisions about what to do when an offer for an American concert tour arrived. He wrote, you “could not possibly understand what tortures I live through when I realize that this question has to be answered by me and me alone. The trouble is that I am just incapable of making any decision by myself. My hands tremble!”

Instead, he decided to go to Dresden and stayed there for the next three winters, going back to Russia to spend the summers at his family's beloved country estate, Ivanovka.

Scriabin, 1903
Scriabin, too, had left Russia for a variety of reasons in 1903, after resigning his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory and because his interest in religious and philosophical mysticism drove him to seek new lands and ideas while he was writing his Third Symphony, The Divine Poem. He took his family to Switzerland but there he decided to leave his wife and four children and go to Paris with his mistress, Tatiana Schlözer. In 1906, Scriabin went to America for a concert tour where The Divine Poem was performed in New York by his old teacher, Safonov. But with the news of Scriabin's treatment of his wife and the arrival of Tatiana not long after, there was a scandal about his “traveling with a woman who was not his wife!” Warned in the middle of the night that “serious unpleasantness” was imminent, Scriabin and Tatiana fled New York on a steamer for Paris the next day though there was never any indication the Department of Immigration was seriously going to arrest them for “moral turpitude.”

Scriabin & Tatiana, Brussels 1909
Back in Paris with only 30 francs left in his pocket, Scriabin set about writing The Poem of Ecstasy and played it for Diaghilev and the visiting Rimsky-Korsakov who felt the “unhealthy eroticism” meant Scriabin was “half out of his mind already.”

In 1909, then, he decided to return to Moscow where he found himself and his music at the center of controversy with “unrestrained agitation and enthusiasm.” He was being hailed as a leader of the avant-garde – curiously, Rachmaninoff was now being regarded as an old-fashioned conservative after Moscow, once a traditionalist cultural back-water compared to the cosmopolitan Window on Europe of St. Petersburg, had become the center for everything new.

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So here is Rachmaninoff in Dresden finding intellectual stimulation as well as sufficient isolation to compose – as he wrote to a friend, “We live here like hermits: we see nobody, we know nobody, and we go nowhere. I work a great deal” – and it was here he composed his 2nd Symphony, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (inspired by a painting of the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin he saw during a side-trip to Paris in 1907), an opera he eventually abandoned, the 3rd Piano Concerto which he would premiere in New York City in 1909 – and his 1st Piano Sonata, the one on Peter Orth's program with Market Square Concerts.

Keep in mind the context of the time – separation from Russia, uncertainty of the future, and his own dark fears. Though there is no published program behind the music of this piano sonata, it began as sketches for a setting of Faust, Goethe's drama about the man who sells his soul to the devil in return for earthly success and happiness. (How could that not resonate with an artist like Rachmaninoff?) Like Liszt's “Faust Symphony,” the work was intended to be three movements, one for each of the main characters – Faust himself in the first movement, Gretchen in the slow movement, and Mephistopheles the Devil in the finale. However, shortly after he began writing the sonata, he abandoned the program though it would be difficult for listeners to ignore the natures of each movement's character in the final work.

Composing the sonata was not an easy task: he had doubts about using the form (though you might think writing a symphony at the same time, essentially a “sonata for orchestra,” would be more formidable); he even had doubts about the length. By the time he went to Paris in May of 1907 – he agreed to play the concerts organized there by Diaghilev (who hated his music) only because he needed the money – he had finished just the 2nd movement of the sonata. After the Paris concert, he returned briefly to Ivanovka, stopping in Moscow to play through a rough draft of the sonata for friends who did not particularly care for it. One of them, however, Konstantin Igumnov, said he would be interested in playing it.

Rachmaninoff completed the sonata in April, 1908 – all 45 minutes of it – and Igumnov premiered it in Moscow that October where it was not a success. Unfortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov had just died in June and suddenly all eyes were on Rachmaninoff as the “Next Great Hope” for Russian Music. It was a little more of a burden than Rachmaninoff or his music needed at the time and the sonata in particular, found “dry” and “repetitive,” failed to please. Even though Rachmaninoff cut 110 measures from the score, shortening it to a more manageable 35 minutes or so, the work has never caught on and is still one of his less-heard large-scale works.

If you've heard any of Rachmaninoff's music, you're probably aware of his fixation with the Dies irae motive from the ancient chant for the Catholic Mass for the Dead's “Day of Wrath.” Not only does he use it to chilling effect outright in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini where it seems to have no thematic relevance, as well as numerous other works where its appearance brings with it a chill of the memento mori, an ever-present reminder of death, it's also a major feature of The Isle of the Dead where it makes perfect programmatic sense. This sonata, written around the same time as the tone poem, also employs the Dies Irae motive but only in outline, suggesting it more than using it as a theme. In fact, the finale of the sonata has no significant “thematic profile” as such, even with its reminiscences of the first movement, but is a furious toccata permeated with this very dark yet simple fragment from the 13th Century laden with centuries of anxiety and dread.

In this version (with original Gregorian chant notation) you need only listen to the first ten seconds:

You could listen to either of these YouTube clips depending on whether you want to watch a pianist perform in concert or, again, follow along with the score while listening to a transfer from an LP. The first is Boris Berezovsky; the second is the legendary John Ogdon.

Even though Rachmaninoff didn't stay in town for the premiere, he eventually returned to his estate at Ivanovka where in late-September, 1909, he completed the Third Piano Concerto, performing it for the first time himself in New York City a month later, part of the American tour he finally decided to accept – because, he told friends, he needed money to buy a new car.

(By the way, Ann Schein returns to Harrisburg in May, 2016, to play Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony.)

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While we'll never know what music lost with the death of Alexander Scriabin one hundred years ago, it is quite possible, given the evolution of his musical style, he might have become a leading voice in the development of 20th Century Music, especially atonal music, whether or not he would have pursued a path similar to Schoenberg's. But in 1909 when he returned to Moscow and when Rachmaninoff, his old school friend, also returned to Moscow the following year and became conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic Concerts, the rivalry between New Music and the Old Romanticism was inevitable, largely due to the press and the former bassist-turned-conductor Sergei Koussevitsky who championed the new style with his own rival orchestra. Rachmaninoff, who tried to remain aloof from the hoped-for fray, however performed Scriabin's music – his earlier music, I would imagine. Following Scriabin's death in 1915, Rachmaninoff gave a concert tour through Russia where he played only music by Scriabin despite requests for him to play some of his own works.

Then came the Revolutions – first, the February Revolution which overthrew the Tsar to form a provisional government with democratic reforms which was in turn overthrown by the Bolsheviks in November, 1917. With that, the country that Rachmaninoff and Scriabin had grown up in disappeared and with it the culture that had nourished them and their art. Many of his compatriots, especially those among the landed gentry, fled to Paris or Berlin, eventually London or America. Hurriedly arranging a quick concert appearance in Stockholm, Rachmaninoff took his family by train to the Finnish border and left with very little of his worldly belongings, never to return.

But that is a chapter for another program.

Dick Strawser