In an epigram by Lord Bacon, cited by Edgar Allan Poe, we read, “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in its proportions.” So we must recall the Wednesday, February 5 piano recital by Vladimir Feltsman at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, “The Russian Experiment: From Mystical to Avant-Garde” that addressed the music of Aleksandr Scriabin and his selected acolytes. Feltsman took his rubric from the critic Brodsky, justifying these musical dissidents with the notion that “Darkness reveals what light can conceal.” Sparsely attended though it was, the recital – admittedly for those with acquired tastes – aroused unmitigated favor in the audience, who by the end of the tour of five composers had to acknowledge the alternately poetic and blazing prowess of our guest artist. Feltsman performed his massive program sans intermission.
Feltsman opened with a triptych from Scriabin (1872-1915) himself, the Deux poèmes, Op. 32 (1903) and Vers la flamme, Op. 72 (1914). Alternately poetic and impassioned, the pieces pointed to this composer’s idiosyncratic conception of music mixed with light, his solipsism and declaration of Self conveyed through cabalistic markings, like inaferando, possibly invoking a barely perceptible touch or presence. The second poem, more assertive, Allegro, con eleganza, con fiducia, barrels forward in a blaze of self-confidence, a potent blend of Emersonian self-reliance and Whitman’s primal “yawp,” Russian style. The 1914 Vers la flamme has something of William Blake about it, a conviction of imminent apocalypse, with the ‘melody’ in the piece virtually limited to the obsessively repeated motif announced at the opening, and present throughout, atop the texture. The composer’s unique harmonic vocabulary of altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for maximum resonance, ensures such an abundance of tritones – the “devil’s chord” – that the consummate effect harmonizes them all into a welcome harmony.
Alexei Stanchinsky (1888-1914) granted us one item, his Prelude in Lydian Mode (1908). The deceptively attractive piece – set in a 23/16 time signature and exploiting the diminished fourth interval – proceeded with transparent grace, reminiscent of Ravel, only to explode in thick chords in the manner of Rachmaninoff. Then, Feltsman’s “heavy stuff” emerged, in the form of four pieces by Alexander Mossolov (1900-1973), known for an orchestral work, Iron Foundry(1926), that had a recording by Victor de Sabata. Mossolov’s notion of his 1925 Two Nocturnes seemed ironic, given the overtly percussive nature of the work. The Two Dances, Op. 23b (1927) proved equally vigorous and just as keen to romp through those Russian “synthetic scales” patented by Scriabin. Sometimes polyphonic, just as often water-borne, the opus delighted in its own liberation from formal procedures.
The progenitor of the “synthetic scale,” Nikolai Roslavets (1880-1944) displayed his idiosyncratic style in Five Preludes (1919-1922), pieces that negotiate six to nine tones in various permutations – a la Schoenberg or Alexandre Tcherepnin – to achieve what sounded like, after about ten minutes, a textural monochrome. What we could admire in these pieces lay in Feltsman’s dexterity and unqualified emotional commitment. A minor revelation appeared in Arthur Lourié (1892-1966), whose 1932 A Phoenix Park Nocturne, dedicated to the Irish master of fiction and mythic style, James Joyce. The music relished glissando passages and crossed hands, then ensued a more jaunty atmosphere. The allusion to Phoenix Park nods to Joyce, who loved to see the end in the beginning, the ouroboros, in all things. “The end is in the beginning” serves as a trope for the Alpha and Omega, a conceit that haunts even Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.
The last entry of the program proper, the Sonata No. 2, Op. 5 of Sergei Protopopov (1893-1954) connected these “forgotten composers” definitively to Scriabin, since Protopopov edited and expanded Scriabin’s notes for Prefatory Action, his prelude to Mysterium. Feltsman calls the 1924 Sonata No. 2 “an incredibly powerful and uncompromising work of violent beauty.” We found the piece muscular, eccentric, glistening, and athletic, much in the manner of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit crossed-fertilized at the end by a danse macabre or toccata. For many of us, only repeated hearings of these works could possibly bestow upon us any sense of their melos or singing character.
Feltsman proffered one encore: a Waltz in D-flat Major (1886) by the fifteen-year-old Scriabin, disarming in its direct sweetness a la Chopin without any sense of its being merely derivative. Already the youth had his own ideas about enharmonic development and ornaments, and we had to acknowledge in ourselves to hear this one again.