Rarified: Juho Pohjonen in Recital

Juho Pohjonen

In a rare moment of programming, Finnish virtuoso pianist Juho Pohjonen selected two composers of distinct musical personality, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) and Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), as the subjects of his marathon Carte Blanche recital at [email protected]’s Stent Family Hall, Saturday, July 20. Having been appointed Compositeur du Cabinet du Roi in 1745, Rameau had created a series of harpsichord suites consisting of both dance pieces and ‘character’ elements, those possessing programmatic or picturesque associations. Innately intellectual, Rameau nonetheless sought to express music of strong feeling, tenderness, and sensibility, what he calls “the language of the heart.” The mystical Russian, Scriabin, for his part, embarked on a totally subjective form of expression, a kind of post-Romantic solipsism, a musical reality defined by his own ego – invested with musical means  adopted from Chopin, Schumann and Liszt – but transmogrified into a ‘philosophy of light,’ commensurate with the paintings of J.W.N. Turner or the religious poetry of William Blake, a vision of revealed ecstasies. Pohjonen chose three sonatas composed 1912-1913 by Scriabin: the 6th, 8thand 10thSonatas, a triptych that might have itself mounted an amazing, emblazoned arch of rapture, albeit impinged upon by moments of sinister mystery.

Pohjonen opened with Rameau’s Suite in A Minor– here played on a decidedly resonant Hamburg Steinway – consisting of seven movements that permitted Pohjonen to display his capacity for intimate, expressive nobility and chastity of musical line – le bon gout– elegant in its crisp articulation of Rameau’s idiosyncratic means – obviously meant for a double manual instrument – to realize the idiomatic nature of pieces like the Spanish Sarabandeor Les trois mains, whose crossed-hand technique creates the illusion of three hands, a favorite device of the later Robert Schumann.  What we soon noted in Rameau – his novel sense of ornament – Pohjonen seemed to relish, as  passing notes, dissonances, and grace-notes, embroidered lilted and nostalgic sentiments, often proceeding by that most telling device – the trill – that Beethoven would eventually liberate and Scriabin raise to an apotheosis. The concluding piece from this suite, the Gavotte avec les doubles de la gavotte, combined elegant wit and digital prowess, the ground theme’s evolution through six variants into a triumphant peroration in C Major. 

If we audience members were not already impressed with Pohjonen’s musical memory and mechanical coordination, the Suite in G Major of Rameau extended our appreciation of the pianist’s sense of rhythmic verve and color nuance. Several of the pieces – Les tricolets, La poule, Les sauvages — gained a marvelous, linear momentum, with La poule(The Hen), for instance, serving to convey a jabbing motif Haydn would exploit in his Symphony No. 83.  Other miniatures, like L’enharmoniqueand Les triolets, embodied Rameau’s forward notions of interior color, fluid motion, and harmony, even – when the musical line broke into small kernels – anticipating the “pulverizing” habits of modernists Schoenberg and Webern.   

For the second half of the recital, Pohjonen required no applause between the single-movement sonatas, an imposition of enforced concentration on our parts. One auditor refers to Scriabin’s Sonata No. 6, Op. 62 as “austere,” but the composer went further – refusing to play the work himself in public – calling the piece “frightening, dark, mysterious, impure, and dangerous.” Pohjonen braved its torturous meanderings and primal urgings to reveal a grand juxtaposition of monumental chord structure and diaphanous, airborne melodic impulses, either descending into the soul’s Abyss or wafting to Empyrean bliss. The music might share the energies of Richard Strauss in Salome, the heavy chromatic coloring’s gradually divesting itself of its sensuous, forbidding veils in order –- even perhaps like D’Indy’s Ishtar –- to unfold a delirious, “simple” dance – on the topmost D of the scale – of the spirit or of the cosmos.  

The Eighth Sonata, Op. 68, extends the potent chromaticism of the Promethean chord – built on fourths – to express a world connecting the visible with the invisible, that of Nature and of Art.  Scriabin means to have particular motifs represent the Alchemical elements of earth, air, fire, and water.  Even the polyphony in the chordal structure must embody “perfect peace,” despite their apparently opposing energies. Amidst the flurries of tunes and kernels, we could hear a vague allusion to Liszt. Pohjonen released the composer’s own chains of chromatic fourths, intermingled with ebbing and advancing waves of scalar and arpeggiated sound, as if air and sea engaged in that same mesmerizing conflagration Shelley divines in “Ode to the West Wind.” One large interval Scriabin designates as “tragic,” which aspires upward but falls back, exhausted. As the music progressed to its foregone conclusion, Pohjonen increased the tempo and the sheer motility of his trills, until the agonized arch appeared to celebrate the very spirit of Creativity to the point of cosmic dispersion, Scriabin’s musical response to the Coleridge poetic enigma, “Kubla Khan.”

The Tenth Sonata, Op. 70, represents the end of a long litany of dances that embody “striving, languor, ecstasy, mystery, and transfiguration.”  Once more, Scriabin seems to adhere to the maxim, “Everything that rises must converge.” The opening themes emerged like organic tendrils seeking roots bellow and light above.  Here, the sonorities in which trills imitate bird calls – a la Messaien – the music has gained a supreme and optimistic confidence.  A wary Prologue leads to a sonata Allegro. Pohjonen’s trill clusters invoked the “blinding light” of poetic, ecstatic revelation or manic Apocalypse.  

That pianist Pohjonen had subsumed this encyclopedia of chromatically invested notation may in itself have represented a minor miracle: but his one encore, Grieg’s lyric piece, “To Spring,” Op. 43, No. 6, turned to the naïve simplicity of the Norwegian folk tune, the voice of Nature in its most unaffected truth. 


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