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Dip Your Ears, No. 86 (Sudbin's Scriabin)

I create the world through the play of my moods,
With my smiles, my sighs, my caresses,
My anger, my hopes, my doubts.

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A.Scriabin, Works for Piano, Y.Sudbin

What Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin said about himself does apply in equal measure to Yevgeny Sudbin – a pianist I have yet to hear in recital but one who has achieve the highest acclaim on account of just the handful of his (SA)CD releases on the BIS label. Gramophone Magazine is throwing Editor’s Choice awards at him and David Hurwitz seems to have fallen in love, and when I listened to his premiere recording of Scarlatti sonatas I was deeply impressed, too. Anyone who can hold a candle to Mikhail Pletnev’s supreme Scarlatti earns my immediate respect and admiration. Now Mr. Sudbin has arrived at Scriabin – via Rachmaninov and Medtner – and he convinces again on an intellectual and emotional level.

It is so, even if you don’t have “visions of light, golden ships on violet oceans, and bolts of fire” during his or anyone else’s Scriabin performance (I don’t). Of course I don’t subscribe to the (pseudo-) synæsthete Scriabin’s vision-fuel of choice – LSD, which may explain that. But anything that’s as exciting in combination with Irish Breakfast tea already does not seem to need additional substance abuse to become a thrilling ride through the wafting and swirling, climaxing and relaxing soundscapes that Scriabin creates and Sudbin so enigmatically puts down.

Not so much for comparative but ‘paired’ listen I pulled out Pletnev again; his CD being the ideal complement to Sudbin – and not only because there is no overlap between them. Both couple a few sonatas with other, miscellaneous works. Sudbin plays sonatas nos.2, 5, 9, Valse op.38, Étude op.8, no.12, and various other excerpts from Scriabin’s sizeable non-sonata output.

The best known work is undoubtedly the Ninth Sonata – “Messe Noire”. (Scriabin did not give that name to his sonata – it was attached by Alexei Podgaetsky in reference to its baleful nature as compared to the open, light mysticism of the 7th sonata that Scriabin had dubbed Messe Blanche.) At 8’09, Sudbin is not anywhere near as fast as the (somewhat banging) Michael Ponti (VOX, 7’05), nor as tempered as Alexei Lubimov in his reading sated with insightful calm and relaxed muscularity (ECM, 8’45 – a recording I am happy to see having been equally thought of as one of the gems of recorded pianism there are by Colin Clarke in his review). Bold and powerful playing is combined with frequent Messiaen-like touches here, but perhaps not achieving the fleeting ‘light and shadow-sodden’ atmosphere of Håkon Austbø (Brilliant, 8’20), or the disquieting storm that Sviatoslav Richter conjures (Richter, e.g. Music & Arts, BBC Legends). The investment with which Sudbin takes to this sonata is evident in his growling and panting during the most vigorous parts. Sudbin leaves the sonata to run out in the most inconclusive of ways, which is of course apt. The liner notes, written by the fiercely learned young man himself, suggest that this is no accident.

Compared to the sinister, eerie Ninth Sonata (of Satanist origin or intent or not), the two Études (op.8, no.12 and op.2, no.1) sound like Chopin. But with the care with which Sudbin tends precisely to these smaller pieces (as the four of the ten op.3 Mazurkas and Poème from Two Pieces, op.56), they become revelatory in offering depth beneath whimsy, a foreboding of things to come beneath their rather unassuming exterior. And yet, what a delightful change it is to plunge from the mazurkas directly into the perverse Fifth Sonata that Sudbin plays with charged and carnal, prurient vigor. Or listen to the organic pantonalism of the op.59 Poème. If ever you were looking for the missing link between Debussy’s Préludes and Schoenberg’s op.11 Klavierstücke, here it is, courtesy of 91 wonderful seconds with Yevgeny Sudbin.

Fans of Scriabin will find this voluminous and rich sounding disc an essential addition to their collection already containing Horowitz, Pogorelich, Austbö, Pletnev, et al. Newcomers to Scriabin are encouraged too, to sample. It will be mind-alteringly sublime at best – and at worst it could not be more ill than hell. (Not much at any rate.)

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