Five Preludes for Solo Piano, Op. 16 (1894–1895)
February 8, 2015 – David Finckel, cello; Wu Han, piano
A student of the Moscow Conservatory alongside the likes of Sergei Rachmaninov and Aleksandr Goldenweiser, the pianist and composer Aleksandr Skryabin struggled greatly to compose, enduring massive anxiety attacks for much of the 1890s. With the support of the conservatory’s director, Vasily Safonov, Skryabin was permitted to graduate early (in the same year as Rachmaninov), although his mentor, Anton Arensky, who had been working closely with Skryabin on counterpoint and fugue, was adamantly against his departure. Nevertheless, Skryabin graduated from the conservatory, and through Safonov’s support was soon contacted by Mitrofan Belyayev, an Imperial Russian music publisher in Moscow.
Through Belyayev’s connections, Skryabin was given opportunity to tour Russia in 1894, and was sent to Paris in 1895. Compositionally, during this period, Skryabin devoted himself almost entirely to composing Preludes towards an outstanding bet he had made with Belyayev that he could compose 48 Preludes before departing for Paris; it was to fulfill this bet that Skryabin composed his Twenty-Four Preludes, op. 11, and Five Preludes, op. 16.
Shostakovich and Nina separated, and the composer, as Vollman alludes, remained in Moscow with no definite plans to follow his wife back to Leningrad. It was during this time that work on the Cello Sonata began. By 1935, however, Nina was pregnant with the Shostakoviches’ first child, and the marriage essentially righted itself (which did not preclude later extramarital affairs by both Dmitry and Nina). Shortly after the affair ended, Konstaninovskaya received an anonymous political denunciation and spent roughly a year in prison.
The first of the Opus 16 Preludes paints a heavily romantic dreamscape. Like a wind-up music box, it is as if Skryabin leads us to question whether the next note will actually come, or whether it will leave us in an airy suspense. Far more decisive than is the following prelude, in g-sharp minor: the work carries a depth in the left hand reminiscent of Franz Liszt, whom Skryabin deeply admired. The third and fourth preludes alternate between a hymn-like chordal melody and a dainty right-hand melody, which recalls the first prelude’s sensibility. The set concludes with a brief, yet fulfilling Allegretto in f-sharp minor.
©2013 Andrew Goldstein