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Scriabin: Sonatas No 1-10 / Anatol Ugorski

Scriabin / Ugorski
Release Date: 07/13/2010 
Label:  Cavi Music   Catalog #: 8553195   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 39 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Ugorski seems to be getting closer and closer to the spirit of the music. An attractive proposition indeed.


SCRIABIN Piano Sonatas Nos. 1–10 Anatol Ugorski (pn) AVI 8553195 (2 CDs: 159:25)

First, let it be said that there is “complete,” and then there is “COMPLETE.” This set contains not quite Scriabin’s entire works designated “sonata.” Others—namely Roberto Read more Szidon’s and Michael Ponti’s long-available Deutsche Grammophon and Vox Box sets—include the unnumbered E?-Minor Sonata and the G?-Minor Sonata-Fantaisie (not to be confused with the Sonata No. 2 in G?-Minor, subtitled “Sonata-Fantasy”) that are not included on Ugorski’s new set. But then, versions by Yakov Kasman on Calliope and Vladimir Stoupel on Audite, both summarily trashed by Peter Rabinowitz in Fanfare 29:3 and 32:4, don’t include them either. Oddly, the Hyperion set with Marc-André Hamelin, which Rabinowitz holds in high regard, and which I happen to have in my collection, does include the early, unpublished G?-Minor Sonata-Fantaisie but not the unfinished student Sonata in E?-Minor. One wonders why Hamelin chose to include the Fantaisie , op. 28, instead.

Anatol Ugorski never quite seemed to catch on with American audiences or critics. Born in 1942 in Siberia, he studied at the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory, and quite promptly upset the Soviet apparatchiks by insisting on playing works by Schoenberg, Berg, Messiaen, and Boulez. In 1968, the powers that be declared him a danger to society, and exiled him to 10 years’ penance as a piano accompanist for choir concerts by the Young Pioneers, a fate probably worse than confinement to a mental institution. By 1982, the authorities considered him sufficiently rehabilitated to appoint him professor at the Leningrad Conservatory. But in 1990, he fled with his family to Berlin, in the face of threats by the increasingly anti-Semitic nationalist Pamyat Party. He has remained in Germany, concertizing and recording, and teaching at the Hochschule für Music in Detmold up until 2007.

Ugorski’s recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon yielded a number of noteworthy releases, among them Scriabin’s Piano Concerto with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (the only one of his CDs I find reviewed in the Fanfare Archive), Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux , Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition , Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations , discs of Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and a no-longer-listed fantastic two-disc set I have of the Brahms sonatas.

I suspect that Rabinowitz would not care for Ugorski’s Scriabin any more than he did Stoupel’s, of which his main complaint was their slowness. I haven’t heard Stoupel, but Ugorski is definitely on the slow side of Hamelin. Here’s a comparison of their timings:

Sonata Ugorski Hamelin

1 27:16 21:41

2 12:47 12:19

3 22:42 19:37

4 8:40 7:58

5 13:55 12:46

6 15:23 11:08

7 13:36 11:24

8 17:00 12:09

9 10:33 8:40

10 16:09 11:42

In every case, Ugorski is slower by a significant margin, but the differences in two of the sonatas in particular, the Eighth and 10th, struck me as so extreme that I wondered if there was a misprint or if the two pianists were playing the same piece. Having listened to them one after the other, I can confirm that indeed they are the same, but Ugorski’s understanding of Scriabin’s Moderato marking and Hamelin’s are poles apart.

The 10th Sonata itself is almost Webernesque; groups of seemingly isolated intervals flutter furtively by, separated by secretive silences. One would have to stretch the definition of Moderato all the way out to Larghissimo to accept Ugorski’s reading as anything close to normative, but I couldn’t help liking it. Hamelin plays it very beautifully, achieving some exceptionally colorful bird-like effects—Hamelin’s note author, Simon Nicholls, alludes to Messiaen’s “luminous, vibrant trills” and the “trembling of insect wings”—but Ugorski goes for a different effect. It’s like being in a state of suspended animation; everything happens in a surreal, slow-motion condition of altered consciousness.

In the case of the Eighth Sonata, Ugorski’s protracted opening Lento is not dramatically slower than Hamelin’s; it’s in the Allegro agitato where the two pianists part company. Ugorski picks up the tempo, but ambles amiably along as if tempo were the only thing that has changed. Hamelin takes off like a jackrabbit, bringing out the proto and protean jazz elements and, again, the music’s Messiaen-like klangfarbe.

Scriabin’s early music is said to be heavily influenced by Chopin and somewhat less so by Liszt, but in these 10 sonatas he quickly moved from a relatively conventional late-Romantic idiom to something that becomes quite difficult to describe. The last five sonatas are written without key signatures, and many passages flirt with non-serialized atonality. Scriabin was an iconoclast, a mystic, a theosophist, a synesthesist, and, toward the end, possibly delusional. Both the man and his music are very complex, and it’s precisely the complexities and contradictions in these sonatas that allow for interpretations as divergent as Ugorski’s and Hamelin’s.

I can’t help but wonder if the slowness Rabinowitz complained of in Stoupel’s performances may be a Russian thing, for here we have Ugorski, another Russian pianist, who believes slow is the way to go. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Ugorski (or Stoupel) on these grounds, for in addition to all of his other emotional baggage, Scriabin too was Russian. Might one legitimately ask if the French-Canadian Hamelin knows better than Ugorski the bleakness of the Russian spirit and the blackness of its soul?

Much as I like Hamelin’s approach—it’s from his recording I came to know these sonatas, and it can be hard to overcome first impressions—I find Ugorski’s take on these sonatas fascinating. His technical control, as in everything I’ve heard him play, is phenomenal; he knows what he wants to say and he makes the instrument say it. His tone has amazing authority and depth to it, which the recording captures faithfully. I will not be disposing of my Hamelin, but Ugorski will definitely vie for equal play time. The two are so different that if you’re a Scriabin devotee, I’d urge you to acquire both. If you can only afford one, I guess I’d recommend sticking with Hamelin, but only because his readings are probably more mainstream. But this new Ugorski set gets a very strong recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

For many listeners, the wealth of Scriabin recordings on the market must be something of a mystery. It's not that the music is unworthy of this exposure, it clearly is, but more that its saleability is questionable to say the least. The answer, I think, lies in the relationships between record labels and their star pianists. Scriabin is first and foremost a pianist's composer, a creator of works that separate the men from the boys and, just as importantly, allow the performer to present unique and subjective interpretations without going against the spirit of the music.
All of these features are very much in evidence with Anatol Ugorski's new recording of the sonatas. Ugorski had a short but stellar international career in the 1990s, framed by his moving from Russia to the West in 1992 and his subsequent decision to give up performing to concentrate on teaching. So what would it take to lure him back into the studio after an absence of around ten years? You guessed it. And how are the results? Well, they are certainly distinctive.
The first thing that struck me about Ugorski's playing is the sheer dexterity of his technique. Late 50s isn't necessarily all that old for a pianist, but from the suppleness of the playing here, you'd think you were listening to a teenager. The interpretation is a different story, and Ugorski's grasp of this music is clearly the result of decades of close study.
It would be difficult to defend this recording against accusations of over-indulgence. Many of the movements are far slower than you will hear elsewhere, and there are all sorts of pauses, gaps and elongations that can't in all fairness be described as Scriabin's own. But I don't hold any of this against Ugorski. I love the way that he lives for the moment and imbues every phrase with almost claustrophobic atmosphere. The recording technology really helps this approach, with the piano placed in a warm acoustical environment. This is especially evident in the resonance of the piano upper register - those quiet held chords washing around inside the lid and refusing to disappear. The dynamic range of the recording, and of the performance itself I suspect, is greater than you'll hear on recordings by, for example, Ashkenazy or Ogdon, which is a real boon for Scriabin's variegated and complex textures.
The downside is a lack of linear focus. Scriabin's melodies, especially in the later works, are difficult to follow at the best of times, but here are often reduced to little more than frameworks for the harmonic and contrapuntal textures. Such are Ugorski's priorities and consistency of approach that he invites the interpretation of this inverted musical hierarchy as a legitimate performance decision. Whether or not you agree is another matter.
The ordering of the sonatas is clever, with each disc beginning in the earlier, more digestible repertoire, and then gradually moving into the composer's more esoteric later works. That would be a sensible approach in any box set of the sonatas, but is particularly valuable here, given the expansive and, yes, indulgent nature of the readings.
I would normally hesitate to recommend eccentric recordings of key works to those unfamiliar with them, but in this case I'm willing to make an exception. He is a real individual, Anatol Ugorski, and he has produced a left-field recording of music that, even in more conservative hands, is itself eccentric. Perhaps that's the point: this is a strange interpretation to say the least, but with every wayward decision, Ugorski seems to be getting closer and closer to the spirit of the music. Add to that the precision of his technique, the sheer athleticism of his playing and the superior audio quality, and this becomes an attractive proposition indeed.
-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Piano no 1 in F minor, Op. 6 by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1892; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 26 Minutes 42 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 4 in F sharp major, Op. 30 by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1903; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 8 Minutes 48 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 6, Op. 62 by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 15 Minutes 32 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 9 in F major, Op. 68 "Black Mass" by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912-1913; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 10 Minutes 42 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 10, Op. 70 by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 16 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 2 in G sharp minor, Op. 19 "Sonata fantasy" by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1892-1897; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 12 Minutes 55 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 5 in F sharp major, Op. 53 by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1907; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 14 Minutes 4 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 7 in F sharp major, Op. 64 "White Mass" by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 13 Minutes 45 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 8, Op. 66 by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912-1913; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 17 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 3 in F sharp minor, Op. 23 by Alexander Scriabin
Performer:  Anatol Ugorski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1897-1898; Russia 
Venue:  Studio 2, BR München 
Length: 22 Minutes 0 Secs. 

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