Skryabin and the Piano

by Stuart Scott 

Alexander Skryabin made a great reputation for himself as a concert pianist and he managed to do this during a golden age of pianism when Rachmaninov, Lhevinne and Hofmann were playing and the public were used to hearing such giants of the keyboard. This fact alone suggests that Skryabin was, from early in his career, a pianist of some calibre.

There is no shortage of comment by writers or musicians who knew Skryabin, worked with him or heard him play, attesting to his outstanding abilities as performer or composer. Indeed, Safonov who championed Skryabin and performed his orchestral music as often as he could, called him “a great pianist and a great composer”, and Montague Nathan writing in 1917 maintained that he “showed exceptional talent as an executant,” and that it was this that contributed to the establishment of his world wide reputation.

Skryabin never played any other composer’s music after his conservatoire recitals and he was never without his critics whose bad reviews were based on their dislike or misunderstanding of his music as much as his piano technique. Critics who wrote enthusiastically about his recitals usually showed some insight into his work as a composer, but without doubt he had a highly personal style of playing which suited his own music admirably.

After his last piano recital given in Moscow in1915, Grigori Prokofiev writing for the Russian Musical Gazette said, “What makes Skryabin’s music ravishing is simply the enchantment of his performance. The tone is marvellous, despite a continuous sharpness, even clanging ‘mezzo piano’, but he achieves extraordinary effects. Don’t forget he is a wizard with the pedal, though his ethereal sounds cannot quite fit the hall. He breaks the rhythmic flow and something new comes out each time. This suffuses the performance with freshness. Never has he played his Fourth Sonata with a more mastery or sincerity as he did yesterday. What power he put in the theme in the second movement! Yet the actual sound was not big. The secret is in the energetic rhythm”.

The complaints of some other critics are apparently borne out by the only remaining record of his playing which are transcriptions of his performances from Welte-Mignon piano rolls, reissued on disc in recent years. Although they seem to confirm a nervous, erratic and arhythmical approach to performance, one must remember that the recordings were reconstructed by engineers through mechanical means and this is never more apparent than in the pedalling to be heard on these recordings. They only serve to show certain aspects of his approach in a purely clinical manner without having the means of combining these (mainly by Skryabin’s individual use of the pedal) to form an overall sound picture. It must also be remembered that tempos could be affected by the piano roll recording method and with so many variables, one cannot rely on the result as being totally representative of Skryabin’s performance.

It is well known that Skryabin did not play a piece in the same way at each performance. He played according to mood declaring that “a piano composition is many facetted … alive and breathes on its own. It is one thing today, and another tomorrow, like the sea. How awful it would be if the sea were the same every day and the same forever, like a movie film!” It is also well known that Skryabin’s playing was extremely free as far as rhythm is concerned and there is still a Russian tradition in playing his music in a kind of ‘sempre rubato’, but there is of course, still the virtually unanswered question about his own approach. Skryabin did not use the direction ‘rubato’ in any of his manuscripts but maybe he assumed that pianists would approach his music in that style. Alternatively of course, rhythmical accuracy could have been a weakness in him as a performer, particularly as it is reported that he had played other composer’s music with an unsteady rhythm. But Skryabin’s music depends so much on rhythm for good effect that it is difficult to imagine a concert pianist of his time being able to get away with this and still cause so much interest and excitement whenever he played.

In 1916, a well respected piano teacher in Petrograd, N. N. Cherkass, published a book entitled, “Skryabin as Pianist and Piano Composer”. Here he went to great lengths to point out, giving reasons, why he thought Skryabin was a bad pianist, but the book does contain a certain objectivity which is useful to the musicologist. However, even he seems to contradict himself on some points, particularly when citicizing Skryabin’s pedal technique. He writes, “ He [Skryabin] took his foot off the pedal only to put it down again but in rare instances played entirely without pedal.” He maintains that had Skryabin been capable of a correct legato, he would not have overused the pedal. But later, when Cherkass speaks of harmonic control he says, “Skryabin had an amazing ability. His innate sensitivity to harmonic clarity kept him in line ………he could separate voices clearly.”

Skryabin would use the pedal to help create the desired effect for his compositions. The pedal was a necessity for his slow changing harmonies. The use of the pedal in his music is not always for a legato effect, but mostly for sustaining harmonies, and often, there are staccato notes played above a held sonority creating tonal balances and sustained effects not previously used by other composers. It is possible to think of him playing in a kind of very clear, transparent way to achieve an effect, but much of his music calls for a lot of sustained atmospheric sonorities.

It is clear from Skryabin’s compositions that he was a master when it came to pedal techniques and tonal balance, and according to Cherkass and others, he played with great accuracy, placing him amongst the great virtuosos of his day. There is no doubt also, that he created a great impression on his audiences, his magnetism and wizardry causing Sabaneyev to describe his performances as “secret liturgical acts” where listeners felt “electric currents touching their psyche”. During his performing career, Skryabin was looked upon as a magician of the keyboard, producing effects that no one else could ever hope for, even when performing his music sympathetically.

His reputation as a composer and a pianist went hand in hand and we should not perhaps try to evaluate Skryabin’s piano technique when compared to other virtuosos who were performing music of quite different character, but it is interesting to note that his unique voice as a composer required a new technique from the performer. Skryabin knew how to create the desired effects in his own compositions quite naturally, but other performers had to learn new approaches when dealing with his music, and this took time. This might go towards explaining why Skryabin’s own performances were always more successful than any of his contemporaries. The handful of other pianists, Hofmann and Rachmaninov amongst them, who did use his music in recitals were not always successful, according to his critics and followers, in evoking that other worldliness or ethereal atmosphere so necessary in any performance of his music.

When Skryabin died, Rachmaninov gave a series of recitals in memory of his friend but by all accounts Skryabin’s friends were outraged at the presentation of his music. Prokofiev, who was present at one of the recitals (Nov.18th1915) in which Rachmaninov played the fifth sonata, later noted that Skryabin’s performances were immediately attractive and enticing with subtle shades of colour and rhythms which made the music fly and soar, whereas “with Rachmaninov all its notes stood firmly and clearly on the ground”. Rachmaninov’s playing was that of a nineteenth century virtuoso whose performances were always controlled and refined, technically brilliant with a good sense of form. In the Russian Music Gazette, Grigori Prokofiev wrote, “the audience was generous in its appreciation, though it distinctly sensed that something was wrong. Rachmaminov played with his usual technical perfection and the musical quality natural to him, but in his approach to Skryabin’s works, he did not (or did not wish to) grasp the basic nature of his music – the unprecedented emotional saturation of Skryabin’s creative power … As if seeking a logic in Skryabin’s harmonic structure, Rachmaninov artificially condensed the tempi. This showed the harmonic line with extraordinary clarity, but the vital spirit had gone! … You should have seen the disappointment with which the admirers of Skryabin’s later piano works looked at each other as they heard the innocuous and prosaic interpretation of the Satanic Poem, or the academically chilled treatment of the Second and Fifth Sonatas.”

Hofmann’s style too, was not entirely suited to Skryabin’s music in that he was restrained from reading between the lines by his perfectionist approach, meticulously observing the printed page. Clearly, Skryabin had a new approach to pianism which was recognised by his teacher Safonov as early as 1888 when he remarked that, “Skryabin possessed in the highest degree what I always impressed on my students: the less like itself a piano is under the fingers of a player, the better it is”.

Many recognised and appreciated this new approach to the piano including Eaglefield Hull who heard Skryabin perform at the Bechstein Hall , London in 1914. He wrote, “Everyone was struck by what appeared to be almost a new kind of pianism. His playing was so easy, so refined, quiet and unassuming, yet so beautifully ethereal in the softest passages, so rich and organ like in the mezzo parts, yet so satisfying in the fortissimo, and his pedal effects were quite magical in effect. It appeared as though this new music had brought along with it a new kind of playing”. And so it did, because concertgoers had to review their understanding of piano music and pianism. No longer could one approach Skryabin’s music as they might Chopin or Liszt’s. New pedal effects were directly involved in producing new tone and colours, and there was little evidence to suggest that technical brilliance was exploited for its own sake.

As a presenter of his own works, sheer technical brilliance had no great attraction for Skryabin and he always regarded the creative side of his art as being more important than performance. That is not to say however, that he didn’t see the significance of performance. He knew that his reputation as a composer was dependant upon self advertisement and only through performance could he realise a following for his music and its objectives.

As one might expect, in his student days Skryabin was indeed interested in virtuosity and became a little jealous of Josef Lhevinne’s miraculous technique. Lhevinne was a fellow student at the Moscow Conservatory and it was Skryabin’s wish to outshine him by playing Balakirev’s Islamey and Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasia more brilliantly. He over practised and badly injured his right hand. He couldn’t use it at all for a while and this gave rise to his Two Pieces Op.9 for left hand alone, which he often used in recitals much later in his career but he was indeed lucky not to have had his concert career cut disastrously short by this reckless action. Whilst being unable to use his right hand, he developed the technique of the left, which many writers have assumed accounts for the difficult left hand parts in his compositions for the piano.

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