By Matthew Goodrich
For the May 1, 2016 concert

In this fascinating program, Vadym Kholodenko invites us into a musical realm of two of the most aesthetically influential pianist-composers. Both Franz Liszt and Alexander Scriabin explored and evolved harmony, texture, and tone color; extended compositional and pianistic virtuosity; and sought to infuse the mystical into musical experience.

The first three Liszt pieces come from the Années de pèlerinage (“Years of Pilgrimage”) cycles, which capture a personal journey comprising travel, reverence for art and literature, and spiritual yearning. The Sonnets of Petrarch, from the “Italy” book of the Années, are passionate musical responses to the Italian Renaissance poet’s meditations on love for a mysterious Laura. In Sonnet 104, “Pace non trovo,” Liszt expresses through dramatic musical contrasts and shifts the poet’s conflicting emotions: “I find no peace, but for war am not suited; I fear, yet hope; I burn, yet am turned to ice. I soar in the heavens, but lie upon the ground; I hold nothing, though I embrace the whole world.” Sonnet 123, “I vidi in terra angelici costumi,” depicts the beloved’s features as eclipsing those of nature: “I beheld on earth angelic grace and heavenly beauty unmatched in all the world.” The melody is limpid, the final moments diaphanous. Les cloches de Genève (“The Bells of Geneva”) concludes the “Switzerland” book, which portrays the beauty and sounds of the Swiss countryside. Filled with the ringing colors of joyful bells, the piece celebrates the birth of Liszt’s daughter Blandine in Geneva on Christmas Eve 1835. It is inscribed with the Byron quote “I live not in myself, but become portion of that around me.”

The nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies, inspired by the extraordinary improvisations and dramatic emotional contrasts of the gypsy music Liszt recalled from his native land, are colorful showcases exploiting every facet of virtuosic pianism. Usually constructed of sections with alternating deliberate and vivacious themes, the rhapsodies exude fantastic fountains of sounds that build in texture, momentum, and expression. Although the last four rhapsodies show the sparer, more dissonant approach of the composer’s late style, the sophisticated and imaginative No. 19, with its novel colors and dazzling passages in thirds, exhibits the vim and vitality of the earlier works.

Liszt dedicated the Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses to his great love Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. Conveying a deep personal spirituality, the collection is prefaced with a quote from Lamartine: “There are hearts broken by grief, trampled by the world, which take refuge in the world of their thoughts, in the solitude of their soul, to weep, to wait, or to worship.” Invocation opens the set with an exultant prayer in warm E major.

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Scriabin composed his Op. 11 set of 24 Preludes from 1888 to 1896. They follow the exact same circle of keys as those of Frederic Chopin, to which they pay tribute. These are some of the most successful works of Scriabin’s early style, marked by his evolving personal harmonic language but still rooted in the sounds of late romanticism. Resonating with the “Years of Pilgrimage” pieces in the first half of the concert, eleven of these fleeting miniatures were musical postcards for his friend, patron, and publisher Mitrofan Belyayev, who sponsored a tour to Europe for Scriabin to perform his own works. Evoking the sights Scriabin took in during his excursions, these preludes were inscribed with the sites of their composition, such as Heidelberg, Dresden, Paris, and Amsterdam. The extremely brief pieces range in mood from meditative to tempestuous and are infused with rich textures and Scriabin’s trademark “crystalline” and “perfumed” pianism.

Whereas the Preludes are strongly influenced by Chopin, Scriabin’s compelling Fantasie, with its passionate melodies and virtuoso pyrotechnics, harkens back to Liszt. Composed between his third and fourth piano sonatas, the sweeping, one-movement work looks forward to the mystic ecstasy of the composer’s mature style. A brooding, stormy opening is followed by a mysteriously beautiful melody, then a theme of majestic grandeur. Scriabin develops these through scintillating arpeggios, octaves, and chords, building to an exultant Wagnerian peak and concluding with an extended, grandiose coda.