Top 5 Sonatas from the Romantic Period: #5

This category was full of hard decisions. I almost considered dividing it into Early Romantic and Late Romantic, but that didn’t seem fair considering that I only did one list for the entirety of the Classical Period. And yet, here I am, trying to create a ranking from a span of music from Schubert all the way to Rachmaninoff. Limiting myself to five spots was also a challenge. Honestly, I’m still sorting it out. When I get to the #1 post I’ll list some comments about the pieces that didn’t quite make the cut.

The difficulty in selection led to a lot of interesting insights, as I listened to certain sonatas back to back, letting them duke it out before my ears. The listening prep also gave me a good excuse to finally listen to some pretty major works that I had just never really given time, like Chopin’s Third Sonata and Schumann’s Second.

#5: Scriabin – Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor, Op. 23 (1898)

Scriabin’s ten sonatas are an astonishing body of work to study. Over the course of approximately twenty years the music transitions from pure Romanticism and recognizable sonata structures to atonality and nebulous forms. The Third Sonata, from near the end of his artistic “First Period,” represents a full flourishing of his unique extended Romantic harmonic language before he pushed further into more mystical, ecstatic territory.

Several factors contribute to the overall Romantic-ness of the piece. First, there’s a cylical element in that themes from I and III return in the finale. Second, Scriabin later gave the piece an extramusical program by adding these descriptive titles to each movement:

I. Drammàtico: The soul, free and wild, thrown into the whirlpool of suffering and strife.

II. Allegretto: Apparent momentary and illusory respite; tired from suffering the soul wants to forget, wants to sing and flourish, in spite of everything. But the light rhythm, the fragrant harmonies are just a cover through which gleams the restless and languishing soul.

III. Andante: A sea of feelings, tender and sorrowful: love, sorrow, vague desires, inexplicable thoughts, illusions of a delicate dream.

IV. Finale, Presto con fuoco: From the depth of being rises the fearsome voice of creative man whose victorious song resounds triumphantly. But too weak yet to reach the acme he plunges, temporarily defeated, into the abyss of non-being.

It’s pretty archetypal romantic self-indulgence, reflecting the era’s unabashed obsession with artistic energy and the whims of the soul, but also pointing to some of Scriabin’s personal philosophy. The description of the last movement suggests that Scriabin was entering a phase of creative blockage. If this is the case, then the next sonata portrays a renewed inspiration and victory. The two pieces seem linked, with the Fourth set in F-sharp major, and reaching a climax at the end that’s one of the most exalted moments in all of Scriabin’s work.

But back to the Third. The first movement begins with a grand, heroic melody, in huge chords spanning octaves in both hands. The material from this opening paragraph generates all of the rhetoric of the rest of the movement. Throughout, Scriabin explores some nifty canonic effects that he would also feature in the Fantasy Op. 28. Soaring heroic gestures are answered by echoes in the left hand. This music is rhapsodic to the max; at times it sounds like three or four melodies pouring out at the same time, with harmonies that sparkle a little brighter than even other Russian romantics like Rachmaninoff.

The Allegretto is an odd little byway, with skittish rhythms and harmonies veering between major and minor to portray the “restless and languishing soul.” Only the delicate contrasting section, which would be right at home in a ballet, seems to fit Scriabin’s description “Apparent momentary and illusory respite.”

In the Andante, we reach a jewel of a slow movement that only Scriabin could produce. The top of the first phrase is a yearning seventh that sets a distinctly romantic mood. A tender melody weaves along, with finely judged harmonic shifts, before dissolving into a bleak, brooding section. It’s unusually introspective, even for Scriabin, but the psychological complexity does earn his description of “vague desires, inexplicable thoughts.” We emerge from the brooding into a return to the main theme in tenor range, now decorated with triplets in high register and warm washes of tone descending into the bass. The theme was dreamy to begin with, but here it achieves an otherworldly beauty. Apparently Scriabin exclaimed at this point during a performance “Here the stars are singing!” After this reverie, the opening gestures from the first movement return in muted fashion as if to say “Where are we now?” 

The remembrance of the first movement leads attacca into the feverish finale. The opening material uses descending chromatics for a sinking feeling, even as the bass roils with energy. Some of the unsettled chromatic progressions remind me of Medtner. I should note that the left hand plays some really difficult material throughout this movement. Finger-twisting arpeggios bound up and down at a Presto tempo. The only relief from the high-energy mood is a twice-occurring theme marked Meno mosso that has the introversion and modest scoring of some of Scriabin’s preludes. After the second statement, Scriabin orchestrates a big final build to a climax on the theme from the Andante, now fff and set in full chords. But it oddly dissipates sooner than we expected, and the sonata ends resolutely in F-sharp minor.

Scriabin’s handling of harmony and pianistic texture throughout the piece is really impressive. The music is full of angst and shows a barely restrained artistic spirit that wants to fly. If you follow the journey through the rest of his sonatas, you’ll see that he flew far, into some mysterious and unknown musical realms.

Where to find it:

51481109 Henle edition

50481780 Scriabin: Piano Sonatas – Schirmer Centennial Edition

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