My four-hand partner and neighbor informed me that she would be away for a couple of weeks on a European vacation, and we talked about what I would be playing from the solo repertoire in her absence. I mentioned that, since a selection of short pieces by Alexander Scriabin would occupy a major segment of the recital that Yuja Wang would be giving here on April 22, I figured it was time for me to resume my work on his Opus 11 preludes. I suppose I should not have been surprised at the reaction of a wide-eyed stare; but I have no problem owning up to the sad truth that I do not play Scriabin particularly well. I just happen to be very curious about what makes his music tick, and this seemed like a good way to prepare for a listening experience in the near future.
I first started looking at Opus 11 several years ago, back when my Baldwin grand was my refuge from Silicon Valley life. Opus 11 is a collection of 24 preludes. Like most collections with that head-count, it traverses all of the chromatic keys in both major and minor, using the circle-of-fifths ordering that we find in Frédéric Chopin's collection. Like the Chopin collection, but unlike those of Dmitri Shostakovich and Lera Auerbach, Scriabin's Opus 11 does not appear to have any overall structure. It is just a traversal of the 24 possible keys, and it may not have even been composed with the pedagogical intentions that occupied Johann Sebastian Bach. The only structure that Scriabin defines is that the collection is broken down into four parts, each consisting of six preludes.
Regardless of Scriabin's intentions, however, even trying to play the Opus 11 preludes is a major learning experience. Having engaged with the first three parts in Palo Alto, I decided to begin this morning with the E-flat major prelude, the nineteenth in the set and the first of the final part. This was definitely not music to jump in and play. While the time signature is 2/4, the basic pulse is ten beats to the measure, written as pairs of five sixteenth notes under a common beam. These however are offset by one of these sixteenth beats, so the set begins one sixteenth before the bar line. The accompanying line then breaks down into conventional divisions of the beat into two or three, with the occasional appearance of a division into five (still offset from the underlying pulse by a single beat).
Having been challenged by my Santa Barbara piano teach to take a stab at the fourth movement of Charles Ives' first piano sonata, I have seen passages far more rhythmically eccentric that Opus 11, Number 19. The pages of my Ives score are saturated with vertical lines in pencil, which guided my awareness of what was supposed to align with what; and I expect that I shall approach this Scriabin prelude the same way. This time, however, I am doing so as another facet in my agenda for becoming a better listener, which means that I shall also be spending time consulting my recording of Michael Ponti playing these preludes. If I can figure out how things tick in theory, there is still the question of whether or not I can hear them tick the same way in performance; and that is why I am doing this to prepare for Wang's piano recital. It is not that she will be playing this particular prelude. (It is not on the version of the program I currently have.) Rather, this rhythmic structure of this E-flat major prelude is part of the more general grammar behind Scriabin's "utterances," at least in his writing for solo piano. I think of it as a bit of aural calisthenics to prepare for the selections that will be on Wang's program.
I suppose I shall not know whether or not this is time well spent until at attend the recital itself. For all I know, the matter will not be settled even after I have heard her Scriabin performances. On the other hand, like chicken soup, the effort does no harm; and it has certainly thrust me into an alternative method for learning to listen to piano music.