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Sean Chen offers an alternative perspective on Scriabin and Ravel

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

At the end of last year, I wrote at some length about a Warner Classics album of pianist HJ Lim on which compositions by Maurice Ravel and Alexander Scriabin were juxtaposed. Exactly a week ago the Steinway & Sons label released a similar album combining works by these two composers, this time performed by the young American pianist Sean Chen, whose academic credentials include Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Juilliard and an Artist Diploma from the Yale School of Music. Chen’s recording has a title, La Valse; and it seems to have been recorded right around the time Lim’s album was released in September of last year. The booklet notes by Damian Fowler give no indication of whether Chen was aware of Lim’s activities when he prepared the program for his own recording.

What are we to make of these two parallel efforts? One possibility is that we now have a new generation of performers who are far more imaginative than their predecessors in preparing programs. They are willing to take chances in juxtaposing compositions that, on the surface, seem thoroughly incompatible. These are risky exercises; but, when they “work,” they can be delightfully stimulating to the attentive listener. To chose an even more provocative example, when the Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova came to San Francisco (my home town) in February, the “spinal cord” for her program consisted of two Mozart sonatas (K. 301 in G major and K. 304 in E minor, both only two movements long) and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 47 (“Kreutzer”) sonata in A major. However, between the two Mozart sonatas she performed John Cage’s “Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard;” and Mozart and Beethoven were separated by Anton Webern’s Opus 7 set of four pieces. This created a situation in which Cage influenced how we were listening to Mozart, while the Webern selection inserted a “Second Viennese School” voice between two of the “First Viennese School” composers. There result turned out to be as stimulating and engaging as it was provocative.

Lim’s album took a similar approach with Ravel providing the “spinal cord.” In this case, however, the beginning and end were complementary, opening with Valses nobles et sentimentales (noble and sentimental waltzes) and concluding with Ravel’s own arrangement of “La valse.” The middle position was then occupied by his early sonatina. The first two selections were separated by two Scriabin sonatas, the fourth (Opus 30 in F-sharp major) and the fifth (Opus 53), while the sonatina and “La Valse” were separated by three short pieces, the Opus 38 waltz in A-flat major and the two Opus 32 poems.

Chen’s program, on the other hand, has been structured more in the spirit of dialogue between the two composers. Like Lim, he chose to conclude his album with “La valse,” this time in his own two-hand arrangement drawn from Ravel’s scores for orchestra, two pianos, and solo piano. However, Chen began his program with another waltz, which happened to be that Scriabin Opus 38 waltz. To be fair, Scriabin did not write many waltzes. The Dover edition of “other works” shows, in addition to Opus 38, one very early (Opus 1) waltz, one posthumous waltz, and the Opus 47 “Quasi Valse.” So, if Chen wanted to complement Ravel’s approach to waltz with Scriabin’s, he did not have many options for the earlier Russian composer.

Within this framework he then places the Valses nobles et sentimentales at the center of his program. More interesting, however, is that he relates the other major three-beat dance form to his waltz selections. Thus Scriabin’s Opus 38 is followed by Ravel’s “Menuet antique,” which I found made for a stunning contrast. On the other hand Valses nobles et sentimentales and “La valse” are separated by Ravel’s other exercise in this form, his “Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn,” where the theme is based on the musical spelling of Haydn’s name (with a few liberties). (In the spirit of “early music,” this is then followed by the 1913 prelude.) The remaining Scriabin selections are the same two sonatas that Lim had programmed, Opus 30 before Valses nobles et sentimentales and Opus 53 before “La valse.” That latter decision entails that the two longest tracks on the album are juxtaposed, as if Chen were saying that, after considering both composers as miniaturists, it was time to regard them on a longer durational scale.

From a strictly cerebral point of view, I would credit Chen with being more imaginative. I am not sure much is to be gained from his replacing Ravel’s version of “La valse” with his own; but the overall recording left me with a stronger sense of the grounds for relationship between these two composers (who, to the best of my knowledge, never met). I would also say that Chen’s approach to Opus 53 is better at revealing the waltz rhetoric of this score, perhaps even suggesting that this sonata offers what I previously called a more “Satanic” distortion of the “waltz concept” than Franz Liszt had achieved with his “Mephisto Waltz.”

On the other hand one can take a more intuitive approach to both of these releases. When I consider both available recordings and concert programs, I sometimes come away with the impression that Vladimir Horowitz was the last American pianist to take Scriabin seriously. Now, in addition to these recordings, we have Evgeny Kissin touring with a program that begins with Franz Schubert’s D. 850 sonata in D major and then, following the intermission, complements it with Scriabin’s Opus 19 (second) sonata in G-sharp minor (which he called “Sonata-Fantasy”) and selections from the Opus 8 collection of twelve études. In other words, about a half century after Horowitz’ promotions, Scriabin is finally getting some considered attention. I, for one, could not be happier about this state of affairs.