Pianist Ivan Sokolov may be a champion of the most advanced forms of abstract modernism in Russia (coming from not only Russian composers but also those from Western Europe and the United States); but the program he prepared for today’s Noontime Concerts™ recital (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral was solidly rooted in the nineteenth century. He began with four of the character pieces from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons (Opus 37a), a set of twelve with one for every month of the year. These were commissioned by Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, who also suggested a subtitle for each month, all of which Tchaikovsky accepted as appropriate. While these subtitles were omitted on the program sheet, they provide a useful guide to the logic of each of these short pieces. Bearing that in mind, Sokolov selected the following four months, whose subtitles are as follows:
- March (“Song of the Lark”)
- April (“Snowdrop”)
- June (“Barcarolle”)
- August (“Harvest”)
Each of these subtitles captures the programmatic nature of the music, and Sokolov captured the spirit of each respective program. Of the four the “Barcarolle” is the most familiar, since it has been subjected to a wide variety of arrangements, frequently for “pops” purposes. This was definitely the most introspective of the four, but Sokolov was well attuned to the rhetorical expressiveness that each of the pieces required. Through these brief selections, he could win the attention of the audience for the major work to follow.
That was the far more familiar collection of short pieces, Pictures at an Exhibition, by Modest Mussorgsky. Here, too, the names of the sections were omitted; but it is safe to assume that most of the audience was already familiar with them, if not by exact name then at least in spirit. Sokolov gave a commanding account of this composition, never daunted by its many technical demands or instances of unconventional sonorities. His greatest sensitivity was in control of dynamic levels, allowing the listener to appreciate moments of suspense that are often passed unnoticed by other interpreters. This was very much an “appreciation” of what Mussorgsky had brought to this composition, championing its “original version” over any subsequent (even if better known) orchestrations.
Having more than capably honored the traditions on the nineteenth century, Sokolov could then move on to the breaking of those traditions. For his encore he took the first of the two poems of Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 32. This was composed in 1903, a very turbulent year for tonality in the West, if not in Russia. The six sharps in the key signature define the tonality of this piece as F-sharp major. However, through an almost stream-of-consciousness progression of harmonic ambiguities, that tonality is never really established until the final cadence. Sokolov nicely captured the motivic cells around which the piece is defined, through which he could then clearly distinguish foreground from background as those motifs are developed. In the context of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, one could appreciate just how revolutionary Scriabin was; and it would have been nice if the composer, himself, had been part of Sokolov’s “foreground.”