From Chopin's Roots
The MHS Review 236 Vol. 3, No. 2 March 5, 1979
by David M. Greene
"Scriabin was, in many ways, an odd fish, though by no means so odd as gossipy reviewers and annotators would like to have us believe."
I was, a couple of years ago, talking to an acquaintance in a musically oriented New York firm when a large, swarthy young man came in. He chatted, politely, even deferentially with the proprietor for a while in a foreign tongue, then shrugged and went away. The proprietor shook his head sadly. The young man, he said, had come here recently from Moscow. He was a fine 'cellist. There was no work for fine 'cellists who spoke no English and lacked a union card. The young man was hopeful of a job with the firm--as stock-clerk, packer, anything. "It's sad," the proprietor added; "They keep coming, day after day."
"They," it eventuated, were emigre Soviet musicians. Possibly the proprietor was engaging in hyperbole. Certainly there's not much publicity. And yet they keep turning up. One wonders who's left back there. (Don't send in lists. I know about Gilels and Kondrashin and Igor Oistrakh, but still...)
Anyhow, here's another. Dmitry Paperno, I am told, studied with the legendary Alexander Borissovitch Goldenweiser, sometime friend of Tolstoy, director of the Moscow Conservatory, and one of the greatest piano teachers in Russia. Paperno took sixth prize in the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 1955, and went on to a successful concert career. In 1976 he emigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago. He is now on the faculty of De Paul University and has given several rapturously received concerts in the area. The present recording was made at Mandel Hall, on the campus of the University of Chicago.
Mr. Paperno makes what I take to be his American recording debut with an all-Scriabin recital. For a Chopinist (or "Chopinzee" as, I think, James Huneker put it) to essay Scriabin is not surprising, for Chopin's music is. where Scriabin took off from, and, indeed, his early pieces have many of the earmarks. Not that people always recognized that now-obvious fact. Back in the old c. 1910 Etude magazines that kicked around my childhood home, Scriabin--along with Ravel, Debussy, Reger, and Cyril Scott--was one of the crazies, quaranteed to elicit a what-in-the-world-are-we-coming-to every time his name was mentioned. But after that, as far as musical life in these United States was concerned, he became an unperson. Leopold Stokowski--popularly regarded as an eccentric genius in those days, which opinion (s) he did little to dispel--bravely made records of the Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus. Now, of course, American, and German, and French, and English pianists are "discovering" Scriabin; but Mr. Paperno, has the tradition, so to speak, in his blood.
Scriabin was, in many ways, an odd fish, though by no means so odd as gossipy reviewers and annotators would like to have us believe. It is true that he was blessed or cursed with synaesthesia, which caused musical sounds to register on his inner eye as colors, and he foreshadowed modern rock concerts with his notions of instruments to produce colors and odors as part of "mixed media" compositions. He also developed a set of complex mystical beliefs that probably defy rational explication. Though these were supposed to underly his later music, I insist that music is a very poor vehicle of things intellectual and that we should not bother ourselves too much about the links between the one and the other. Most of what Paperno plays here comes, anyhow, from the earlier periods when Scriabin was still using Chopin as his cornerstone, and the two earlier Poems, the terse little Preludes, and the Ravel-esque Waltz should pose no problems. Nor should the Sonata No. 2, though Scriabin breaks with standard sonata-form here. The work is titled Sonata-fantasie (his first, unpublished, essay in the sonata was similarly called), and consists of an andante and presto, conjoined as a unity, but actually composed four years apart. The ninth sonata, also in one movement, is, however, pure Scriabin and one of his most individual works. It is a piece that has elicited a wide variety of conflicting reactions. One of Scriabin's friends termed it the "Black Mass" Sonata ( a name that has stuck) in jesting reference to No. 7, which Scriabin had called the "White Mass;" but Scriabin insisted that he intended it in quite opposite terms. The late Poem "Toward the Flame," which plays with some of Scriabin's notions of links between vitality and fire, is, to my thinking, the most fascinating work on the disk.