Scarlatti to Scriabin: Yevgeny Sudbin’s colorful journey

Acclaimed Russian pianist gives a Portland Piano International recital Sunday.

Yevgeny Sudbin performs Sunday at Newmark Theater. Photo Credit: Clive Barda

Yevgeny Sudbin performs Sunday at Newmark Theater.
Photo Credit: Clive Barda

 

BY JANA HANCHETT

A masquerade, a feminist’s battle, an island of pleasure, a rebellion, a transcendent sunrise, and finally, unconstrained ecstasy: in other words, a recital presented by Yevgeny Sudbin. The London-based pianist will take the stage at downtown Portland’s Newmark Theatre this Sunday at 4 pm as part of Portland Piano International’s recital series.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1980, Sudbin burst onto the classical piano scene in 2005 with the release of his album Sudbin Plays Scarlatti, and will treat Portland to four of these scintillating gems. Scarlatti composed with a shrewd distaste for anything tedious. “Do not expect any profound Learning,” he wrote about his sonatas, “but rather an ingenious Jesting with Art.”

Sudbin completely embodies this Scarlattian individuality. In his liner notes, Sudbin writes, “To me, [the sonatas] seem like an assortment of diverse guests at a masquerade, where the conflict of a disguised character with the real individual behind the mask amplifies the almost schizophrenic duality which seems apparent in virtually all of Scarlatti’s sonatas.” Sudbin will start the program with Scarlatti’s sensuous Sonata in F minor, K. 466, and then quickly change masks with the frolicksome and foxy Sonata in G major, K. 455.


After two more short Scarlatti sonatas, Sudbin will jump into Chopin’s Ballade No.3, Op. 47. Chopin’s third ballade is a waterfall of yearning and a cantering flirtation that ends in do-or-die commitment. Fifty-one years after the composition, this ballade inspired Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration “Frontispiece to Chopin’s Third Ballade,” a cheeky commentary of delicate women dominating their sexual counterparts.

Frontispiece to Chopin's Third Ballade 1895 Aubrey Beardsley

Frontispiece to Chopin’s Third Ballade 1895 Aubrey Beardsley

Musicologists debate whether this ballade is directly influenced by “Switezianka,” a poem by Chopin’s contemporary Adam Mickiewicz which appears in his collection Ballady. Corroborating Beardsley’s feelings on the matter, “Switezianka” relates the Polish version of Ondine, the water nymph who seduces handsome men to their watery grave. Chopin did tell Schumann that his ballades, particularly the second, were inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s “Ballady.” However, it is more likely that the weightier undercurrents of Polish alienation, homelessness, and nostalgia communicated by Mickiewicz in this collection resonated with Chopin, a fellow artist exiled from Poland and a fellow representative of the Great Emigration.

Sudbin himself focuses on a more innocent time to discover the heart of Chopin. “It is easier to find access to Chopin as a child, when one tends to analyse less and fear nothing, and one’s emotions and world view have not yet been polluted by experience of life and worldly concerns,” he wrote. “Approaching Chopin as an adult is often anything but simple, however; it is like looking in the mirror at your own inner self; you will not like what you see (and if you do, you should probably get a new mirror) and this will significantly inhibit access to Chopin’s music.”

Sudbin’s examinations have tunneled a clear path into a sound world uninhibited by cynicism and which, in another critic’s words, “amplifies” Chopin’s truest intentions.

Sudbin will follow Chopin with Debussy’s “The Happy Island,” inspired by Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting “The Embarkation for Cythera.” After luxuriating in Venus’ birthplace, the intense happiness abruptly dissipates with Liszt’s “Funerals,” a defiant elegy for Liszt’s friends killed in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 in which the Austrian Empire reasserted control.

Then comes “Harmonies of the Evening,” the eleventh of Liszt’s twelve “Transcendental Etudes.” Liszt reworked these etudes three times: he originally composed them when he was fifteen, revisited them at age 26, adding the poetic titles, and then at age 41, he edited them once more and published them. During this time, French Romantic poets from Victor Hugo to Baudelaire sought spiritual awareness in the tangible, natural world, particularly through using the literary theme of soleil couchant (sunsets). Participating in this zeitgeist of sunset obsession, Liszt passed over all their metaphors by recognizing in his music a tangible realization of the spiritual transcendence they were trying to capture.

Swimming in Violet Oceans

Finally, Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata no. 5 will be the linchpin for Sudbin’s concert. Scriabin was simply a lunatic. Once, claiming supernatural powers and a Christ-like resemblance, he tried walking on Lake Geneva. Upon failing in this endeavor, he decided to preach from a fishing boat instead.

Scriabin’s ten piano sonatas chart his compositional development from Chopin-esque to a post-Wagnerian mystic. His synesthesia and belief in theosophy fueled the composer’s desires to achieve mystical ecstasy through music.

“When I first became involved with Scriabin’s music, Scriabin eclipsed everything in my life,” Sudbin recalled. “The passion and curiosity for the music and the persona seemed self-nourishing and even destructive in its nature, almost like a type of lust, and wouldn’t subside. Even if I wasn’t always swimming in ‘violet oceans,’ the penetrating cosmic sounds that imploded space and time and the often erotic sub-contexts, ignited every cell in my body. As with all over-reactions, it is crucial what is left after the initial sensations cool off – that residue will either condense into enduring reverence or evaporate like smoke.”

Sprinkled with what Scriabin called his “chord of pleroma,” or “mystic chord” created by stacking perfect fourths, this piano sonata affords a voluptuous experience made complete by looking at the art of Nicholas Roerich, Scriabin’s mystical contemporary.

For now, YouTube has only Sudbin’s demonic performance of Scriabin’s ninth sonata, so you can purchase the recording on his website or come hear it live.

Yevgeny Sudbin performs Sunday, April 7, at 4 pm in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts’ Newmark Theatre. Tickets are $14-$54 and can be purchased online at Portland Piano International or call 503-228-1388.

Portland pianist Jana Hanchett is a frequent contributor to Oregon ArtsWatch.

Debussy's inspiration: L'Embarquement pour Cythere, by Antoine Watteau

Debussy’s inspiration: L’Embarquement pour Cythere, by Antoine Watteau

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