By Matt Goodrich
For the February 18, 2018 concert

Millions of words have been written to honor the magnitude of Ludwig van Beethoven and his miraculous oeuvre of 32 piano sonatas. The “Pathétique” Sonata, aptly subtitled by the publisher, has always been a popular favorite among pianists and music lovers. Beethoven wrote the relatively early work in 1798 as he was starting on his first set of string quartets. (It is thought that this was about the time his hearing began its inexorable decline.) The sonata was an immediate critical and commercial success.

The first movement begins with a slow, dramatic introduction leading into the tumultuous Allegro molto. This movement is full of interesting pianistic sonorities that contribute to the stormy sweep, as well as an unusual return of the introductory material amid the agitation. The expressive middle movement, its lovely melody presented three times, is one of the great lyrical expressions in all of Beethoven. The concluding rondo is punctuated by striking effects before galloping to a brilliant finish.

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Alexander Scriabin explored and evolved harmony, texture, and tone color, seeking to infuse philosophy and mysticism into his musical creations. He was an accomplished pianist, and with the exception of a handful of symphonic works, he composed solely for that instrument. Today’s selections offer a sampler of his compositional styles (although not as a chronological survey), from roots in Chopinesque romanticism into the “perfumed” and “crystalline” sounds of his maturity.

The two etudes in today’s offering are both virtuosic and a touch bizarre. The opening Etude Op. 65, No. 1 features chromatic 9ths in the right hand—fashioned almost like “stretched octaves” that give a peculiarly insectoid effect. The earlier scampering Etude in D-flat Major harkens back to Chopin, as though the “Double Thirds” etude were updated into the kaleidoscopic waves we hear in Scriabin. The Op. 59, No. 2 Prelude, the second of a set of two pieces, is marked “wild and belligerent.”

In his poems, Scriabin clothes his personal inspiration in drifting sonorities and complex rhythms that give the music a phantasmagoric quality. The Poème in F-sharp Major has a dreamy, pastel wistfulness, giving a taste of the composer’s shifting style. Scriabin wrote the capstone work of Ohlsson’s set, the one-movement Sonata No. 5 in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1907. He reported to have received the sonata in a vision, setting it down in just a few days. The piece breaks open a completely new realm of sensation, sound, and nervous passion. (His wife wrote, “Everything you have heard up to now is as nothing. You cannot even tell it is a sonata!”) It is headed by a poetic verse that expresses the Scriabin ethos:

“I call you to life, oh mysterious forces!” 

Buried in the obscure depths 

Of the creative spirit, sketchy 

Outlines of life, to you I bring my bold courage.” 

Dramatic textures and colors fill a brief, fragmentary piece that progresses from languid to fleeting to white-hot, looking to the mysterious ecstasy of Scriabin’s later works.

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photo © Bartek Sadowski

It is thoughtful that Ohlsson bookends his Scriabin group with piano sonatas of Beethoven and Franz Schubert. On his own web site, pianist Stephen Hough writes, “Schubert, in his late piano sonatas, is revealed more as a listener than a speaker, the ‘heavenly length’ being that open-ended time which it takes for a person to respond to the suffering of another. The composer and performer thus enter into an intimate communion of hearts, and the audience can only ever be eavesdroppers. There is a contrast here with Beethoven, the declamatory prophet, whose individualism tends to manifest a will to power, to overcome; Schubert’s individualism is more a withdrawal into solitude, and a sense of being overpowered and overcome.”

Beethoven gave the romantic era the grand ideal of the classical piano sonata, and Schubert offers a different, equally noble approach built around his melodic genius. The great Sonata in B-flat Major, a favorite of performers, exemplifies this from its first tune. This opening movement is full of warmth and breadth, sprinkled with dance and sunshine. About this movement, Hough writes, “It is one of those occasions when the pen has to be set down on the desk, the body rested against the back of a chair, and a listener’s whole being surrendered to another sphere.” Next, the slow moment mesmerizes with its gently lamenting minor theme and dotted rhythms, opening into a lush second melody that traverses numerous key areas. The following scherzo is song, dance, and charm served con delicatezza. Finally, in the last movement, an almost-jaunty theme takes the listener on a journey that concludes the sonata with a final outburst of joy.

To me, this is one of the most generous piano pieces ever written. Its four movements are a broad, almost-cosmic canvas of pure song spun into all manner of wonders. It is even more moving to know that Schubert composed this sonata in the fall of 1828 just a few weeks before his death at the tragically young age of 31. I can think of no better way to spend a late-afternoon, mid-winter hour than in meditation of all the gifts Schubert gives us in this wonderful work.