Bengtson is a remarkable artist. … Big-boned pianism, rich tonal colors, and dazzling technique are on display here. Has Scriabin ever been played better? Only Horowitz and Richter can compare to what Bengtson achieve on this disc. … exciting music making.
SCRIABIN: Piano Sonatas 3-5 and 8-10
Matthew Bengtson – Romeo 7232 – 74 minutes
Here is a real sleeper – a wonderful surprise. Where has Matthew Bengtson been? His biography is rather sparse on solo recitals or orchestral appearances. He has studied with Ann Schein, Robert Levin, and Malcolm Bilson. Apparently he has devoted much of his energy to teaching. On the basis of this recording Bengtson is a remarkable artist, at least in the music of Scriabin. Big-boned pianism, rich tonal colors and dazzling technique are all on display here. Has Scriabin ever been played better? Only Horowitz and Richter can compare to what Bengtson achieves on this disc. Does he play this well in concert?
Scriabin’s music continues to astound. From the neoromanticism of the early sonatas to the path-breaking mysticism of the late works, Scriabin was one of music’s true originals. The dark, ambiguous harmonies of the last sonatas continue to fascinate and disturb. What would Scriabin’s magnum opus Mysterium have been like? (Gunther Schuller has completed a symphonic version of part of that impossible project. Why has that visionary fragment not been recorded?) The Field Concert Hall at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute offers a spacious, warmly resonant environment for Bengtson’s exciting music-making.
BUDMEN (Lawrence Budmen, American Record Guide, July/August 2005)
The superlative review Bengtson garnered 10 years ago can only be echoed here. The 40-ish pianist is very active as a teacher in the Philadelphia area, lecturer, author and recitalist. Based on his Scriabin alone, I will go out of my way to see him in concert. … I heard clarity and voicings in Bengtson’s playing that were new, and I have been listening to Scriabin’s piano sonatas for well over 40 years. These performances are ones to compare others to. I hope we don’t have to wait another 10 years for more Scriabin from Romeo and Bengtson.
SCRIABIN: Piano Sonatas 1, 2, 6, 7: 6 Preludes; 4 Poems
Matthew Bengtson – Romeo 7308 – 76 minutes
This completes the set of sonatas begun on Romeo 7232 (July/Aug 2005), and it was worth the wait. The superlative review Bengtson garnered 10 years ago can only be echoed here. The two discs together give you 150 minutes of truly great Scriabin: all 10 of the piano sonatas and a generous sprinkling of Preludes and Poems. A glance at the pianist’s website shows a complete musician with plenty of academic achievements and degrees (Harvard, Cornell, Peabody, Eastman). The 40-ish pianist is very active as a teacher in the Philadelphia area, lecturer, author and recitalist. Based on his Scriabin alone, I will go out of my way to see him in concert.
In 1915, shortly after Scriabin’s death, his long-time friend and fellow student, Sergei Rachmaninoff, gave a series of all-Scriabin recitals to honor the memory of someone he was very close to and to raise funds for his widow. Reaction to these recitals was mixed because of a style of pianism that was decidedly different between Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, even though they were trained early on by the same teacher. As might be expected, Scriabin’s lofty flights of imagination and mercurial playing of his own works was sharply contrasted by Rachmaninoff’s more earth-bound interpretations. The best comments from that period allowed for both approaches to be valid and enlightening. While I would put the legendary Sofronitsky and Horowitz recordings in the Scriabin style, I would put Richter, Ashkenazy, and now Bengtson in the Rachmaninoff style. All have added to the richness of Scriabin recordings.
I heard clarity and voicings in Bengtson’s playing that were new, and I have been listening to Scriabin’s piano sonatas for well over 40 years. His tempos are a little slower than I am used to, but good. The complexities in this music are extreme in all areas: rhythm, sonority, dynamics, tonality (especially in the later works), and pianistic figurations. Apart from early Preludes, Scriabin did not compose anything that could remotely be considered easy. These performances are ones to compare others to. I hope we don’t have to wait another 10 years for more Scriabin from Romeo and Bengtson.
James Harrington, American Record Guide, July/August 2015
… the sensuous weave of Scriabin’s visionary palette remains palpable in Bengtson’s rendition. … The sheer color range – especially in the high-register trills and arabesques – of this rarely performed sonata (no. 6) warrants the price of admission.
… Bengtson joins those Scriabin acolytes – Horowitz, Sofronitzky, Richter, Berman, Barere, Neuhaus – who relish the solipsistic mystic for his own audacious personality, his liberated subjectivity. We spend with Bengtson over an hour in a rarified labyrinth, infinitely and ineffably compelling.
SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor; Piano Sonata No. 2;
Poeme in F-sharp Major; Prelude in G Minor; Four Preludes; Deux Morceaux; Sonata No. 6; Two Poemes;
Piano Sonata No. 7, “White Mass” – Matthew Bengtson, p. – Romeo
Over an hour of the music of mystic Alexander
Scriabin, a labyrinth of the ineffably compelling and perennially
Published on March 31, 2015
In honor of the one hundredth anniversary of
the death of Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), Matthew Bengtson extends his survey of the Scriabin piano opera with Volume II of the Sonatas, recorded on the Steinway at Piano Craft, Gaithersburg MD. Matthew Bengtson has studied with Ann Schein, Robert Levin, and Malcolm Bilson. The present selection of works embraces true dichotomies in Scriabin’s personality: the 1893 Sonata No. 1 looks to the past in its four movements, certainly to Chopin, whose own Funeral March Sonata finds more than passing reference in the last movement of the F Minor Sonata, Op. 6. Curiously, while Scriabin would reject the Classical models – “sthe music of yesterday”s – in the Beethoven sonatas as he evolved his style into one-movement “poems,”s he took Beethoven’ss liberated trill as a major element in his own work, especially as the last movement of the Bonn master’ss Op. 109 remained a personal source of delight to Scriabin.
The influence of Beethoven’ss Op. 109 makes itself known in the 1897 Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, whose opening movement, Andante, more than flirts with E Major in liquid, semi-occult harmonies that resound with aspects of Schubert and Liszt. Hammer blows infiltrate the otherwise “watery” sensibility of the first movement, but the sensuous weave of Scriabin’s visionary palette remains palpable in Bengtson’s rendition. The filigree of the coda moves into the right hand of the more virtuosic Presto second movement, which escalates in power and turbulence into a broiling volcano.
Bengtson exploits languor and passion in the 1903 Poeme, Op. 32, No. 1, a duet in counterpoint, a teasing waltz in hesitant motion moving inaferando into an indulgent vortex that combines rapture and aromatic vapors. The 1900 Prelude in G Minor has much of Rachmaninov’s passionate style, though gleaned from Taneyev. The Four Preludes, Op. 37 (1903) still toy with traditional chromatic harmony, but the envelope shows splits. The askew jubilation of the No. 2 in F-sharp Major reveals the Liszt influence, especially from the Dante Sonata. The B Major conveys a Romantic disposition, its chords easy models for the likes of Duke Ellington and Billy Taylor. The No. 4 in G Minor combines declamations from both Schumann and Wagner, but highly abbreviated.
With the Deux Morceaux, Op. 59 (1911), Bengtson transitions into Scriabin’s late style, freed of key signatures and traditional harmony, but rather relying on intervals of the fourth placed in nervous, jabbing, rhythmic spaces. If the feminine delicacy of the Poeme suggests Schumann’s Eusebius, the assertiveness of the Prelude challenges Stravinsky and Mussorgsky for intrusive repetition. Then, the irrational mystic, the explorer of the “imp of the perverse,” appears in the so-called “Promethean chord” of the eerie and eldritch Sixth Sonata (1912), in which the piano attempts to become simultaneously weightless and symphonic. In the course of jagged, palsied movements and gestures, the Terrifying One ascends, and the music transforms into a delirious dance of competing triple and duple meters. The sheer color range – especially in the high-register trills and arabesques – of this rarely performed sonata warrants the price of admission.
Conrad’s “fascination of the abomination”informs the Deux Poemes, Op. 63 (1912), the Masque and the Etrangete, respectively. The first piece requires “a hidden sweetness,”but that could be the power of Evil to assume a pleasing shape. The more prismatic, quasi-Debussy second piece asks for “a sudden strangeness,” an ambivalent moment in the high registers, either ecstatic or exiled. Scriabin indulges his messianic sensibility in his Seventh Sonata, the “White Mass” of 1912. The hesitant and flickering motive design may betray a debt to Schumann’s “The Prophet Bird” of Op. 82; but the music wants to expose Scriabin’s sense of the transcendent, the numinous, in its hieratic fanfares, stratified dissonances, and idiosyncratic Russian bells.
Bengtson joins those Scriabin acolytes – Horowitz, Sofronitzky, Richter, Berman, Barere, Neuhaus – who relish the solipsistic mystic for his own audacious personality, his liberated subjectivity. We spend with Bengtson over an hour in a rarified labyrinth, infinitely and ineffably compelling.
– Gary Lemco (audaud.com) Gary Lemco
Audio audition, audaud.com, 2015, from
.. Bengtson offers some of the most authoritative and electrifying readings of the sonatas (and a few of the miniature character pieces) in memory. Here is a pianist of extraordinary depth and imagination, whose way with this music is at once unique, satisfying, and interpretively unimpeachable.
.. it is the rare musical mind and even rarer pianist who, like Bengtson, is capable of mastering such complex music.
.. Bengtson is a Scriabinist for the 21st century, one who embraces the interpretive objectives most valued by his contemporaries among composers, theorists, and performers. … Bengtson, who imitates no one, has synthesized the most persuasive elements that the best Scriabin interpreters – Fyodorova, Vedernikov, Zhukov, and Horowitz among them – have set forth over a century. To that end, he can now join those esteemed Scriabinists upon whom future generations can rely for definitive interpretations.
SCRIABIN Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2, 6, 7. 4 Preludes, op. 37. Prelude in g, op. 27/1. Poème, op. 32/1. 2 Poèmes, op. 63. 2 Morceaux, op. 59. Matthew Bengtson (pn) ROMÉO 7308 (75:08)
SCRIABIN Piano Sonatas Nos. 3-5, 8-10 Matthew Bengtson (pn) ROMÉO 7232 (74:21)
The interpretive demands of Scriabin’s music do not forgive those who fail to account for its spiritual dimensions, or probe the relation between his compositional techniques and his mystical beliefs. To a remarkable extent, Scriabin succeeded in duplicating, in compositional categories, the core of his Hindu-inspired philosophy: transcendence of the ego. Within an exotic soup of chromatic, whole-tone and octatonic scales, legions of tritone-saturated, dominant-quality chords annihilate conventional harmonic function and disturb ordinary progression and resolution. As it hovers and exfoliates, the music frustrates our expectations and leaves the impression of time suspended. Here Scriabin’s sultry spirituality found an ideal vehicle for expression: the obliteration of a single key center (for centuries the Rosetta Stone of Western music) in favor of multiple, perpetually shifting centers. The prismatic harmonies, peculiar distribution of pitch material, and fragmented rhythmic configurations do not represent the religious ritualism to which they aspire so much as they reproduce it as the principle of the music’s immanent structure, giving way to the obsessive character of ritual itself.
For Scriabin, the ambiguity of this approach was to become the musical equivalent of the androgyne, or the non-ego, the governing principles of his Vedanta-driven mysticism. Thus, the great interpreter of Scriabin is a kind of translator capable of transforming himself from performer into conjurer; the richly layered, diaphanous textures demand a comprehensive command of structure, dynamics, and a rhythmic suppleness that moves beyond purely metrical considerations.
At long last, a pianist has come along who fulfills those qualifications. Matthew Bengtson has not only cultivated the transcendent technical apparatus indispensable for performing Scriabin, but has assumed intellectual responsibility for its interpretation. An adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, and Bryn Mawr Colleges, Bengtson offers some of the most authoritative and electrifying readings of the sonatas (and a few of the miniature character pieces) in memory. Here is a pianist of extraordinary depth and imagination, whose way with this music is at once unique, satisfying, and interpretively unimpeachable.
That is in large part because Bengtson is aware that the notion of Scriabin’s late music as a transitional affair, that is, a gateway between tonality and atonality, is apocryphal. That idea, long since put to rest by scholars as inadequate and technically insupportable, betrays its naiveté at every turn; it is the kind of thinking that invites rhythmically wayward, rhapsodic performances that compromise the music’s form and content. Scriabin’s music, on the contrary, fulfills the very concept of atonality for exactly the reasons described above; its cosmos of instability is energized precisely by the absence of a single, identifiable tonal center of the sort long proffered by tertiary harmony. Rather than proceeding from and returning to a grounded tonic, Scriabin’s harmonic Diaspora wastes no time spreading its wings as it fashions harmonic galaxies within galaxies. In this rarefied atmosphere, the compositional sun (an apt metaphor for the central role and function of the tonic) has no particular importance nor stability, but the gravitational attraction of black holes, which are codified in derived dominants, octatonic scales, tritones, perfect fourths, and French sixths, certainly do. Things swirl and murmur, orbit and disperse, only to burn up and evaporate in this exotic compositional atmosphere.
That said, it is the rare musical mind and even rarer pianist who, like Bengtson, is capable of mastering such complex music. After all, doing so requires a significant investment of time and study, as well as a polymath’s intellect that takes satisfaction in investigating the artistic, literary, and philosophical disciplines that inform Scriabin’s aesthetic ideology. Those pianists unwilling to throw themselves into all that are bound to fail in this repertoire. Unfortunately, self-indulgent, overly rhapsodic, rhythmically flabby, and overtly sentimental performances have not only become customary and usual, but also mistaken for informed interpretation.
In the First and Second sonatas, Bengtson’s big-boned but unsentimental approach allows him to risk tempos that some might find too fast, but which ultimately maintain their integrity. That alone, in music which predates Scriabin’s visionary late works and sticks to a tertiary script, is enough to insure that they don’t drift off course and into mere rhapsody. In these finely chiseled performances, one can trace the work’s form as it takes shape. It is rather like admiring and evaluating a great painting at just enough distance to appreciate its content while allowing the whole to move in on us.
In the assertive Third Sonata, Bengtson takes the listener on a journey unencumbered by cliché; again, in spite of a tempo that is slightly faster than that taken by other pianists, his rhythmic sensibility is relentless. Counterpoint comes alive in this reading as polyphony jumps off the page. Melodic lines, no matter their variable function, are abstracted from and then reintegrated into the whole with consummate, if unnerving skill and austerity. And what a relief that he refuses to turn the second movement of the Fourth Sonata into proto-Gershwin, which just about every pianist always does. Instead, he pays homage to the work’s fragmentary nature, flattering its litany of short, motivic units for what they are, and not for what they are not: a rhapsody.
The crown jewel of Scriabin’s middle period musical diadem, the Fifth Sonata, is a gigantic waltz whose angular syncopes Scriabin manipulates in the context of expanding and contracting meters. In this work, which adumbrates the Poem of Ecstasy, whole sequences of truncated climaxes, driven forward cumulatively in waves of rhythmic energy, breathlessly simulate orgasm. An informed interpretation is one that aims to duplicate Scriabin’s implicit eroticism in an act of symbolic consummation with the listener. Bengtson’s vivacious, now lighter than air, now blistering, account of this one-movement behemoth does full justice to the composer’s intentions. The Sixth Sonata, in the coda of which Scriabin writes a note that does not even exist on the piano, purrs along mysteriously just as it should, while the Seventh evokes Russian bells persuasively. Although I prefer a slower tempo in this sonata, one that accommodates the slim shimmer of the Egorievsky chimes at the opening and the citation of the Coronation Music from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in the coda, Bengtson’s tightly controlled, rhythmically driven view is eminently convincing.
But it is in the Eighth Sonata, which is the most difficult of the lot, that he pulls out all the stops in a performance so astonishing, deftly detailed, and rhythmically compelling, as to out-Sofronitsky Sofronitsky’s performance, which until now was incomparable. In this remarkably intense performance, Bengtson propels it relentlessly forward as if in a single breath. The Ninth and Tenth sonatas are no less intense; indeed, he invests the profusion of trills that give the Tenth its tremulous shape with new meaning with each successive appearance.
Bengtson offers a few miniatures, including the often played Poème, op. 32/1, which he plays to perfection and with incomparable elegance. Unlike Garrick Ohlsson, whose recent recording of this and other poems fetishizes the music at every turn, he understands the importance of the contrapuntal melody, wherein a single melodic line implies two or more. Elsewhere, the Deux Morceaux and the fragile Poèmes, op 63, are exquisitely drawn.
Bengtson is a Scriabinist for the 21st century, one who embraces the interpretive objectives most valued by his contemporaries among composers, theorists, and performers. Much the same can be said of Sofronitsky’s performances of Scriabin in the context of 20th-century Soviet culture, to the extent that, for all their fantasy, they conveyed longing for an aristocratic, pre-Soviet past. Bengtson, who imitates no one, has synthesized the most persuasive elements that the best Scriabin interpreters – Fyodorova, Vedernikov, Zhukov, and Horowitz among them – have set forth over a century. To that end, he can now join those esteemed Scriabinists upon whom future generations can rely for definitive interpretations.
There is a certain irony in this; had I heard Bengtson’s Scriabin 40 years ago, I would not have warmed to it, impressed as I was by the artistic traditions of the day. In those days, when Scriabin interpretation, in this country especially, embraced a kind of hallucinatory stream of consciousness, Scriabin stood out as classical music’s Pied Piper. What listeners may have had in their own pipes at the time is another matter. But in the ensuing years, after much study, critical evaluation, careful listening, and experience as a performer, those of us invested in his work were persuaded by its immanent content, rather than its popular capital. For the savvy interpreter, its compositional ambiguity, especially in the late works, is not only a codification of his mystical agenda, but the key to delivering its essentially humanitarian message.
Though hardly the pianist’s fault, the sound quality of these discs struck me as a bit thin and wanting for depth and opulence. It sounds as if it was all recorded in a vacuum. However, that alone should not stop listeners from acquiring these discs, which should become part of the permanent collection of every Scriabin devotee. John Bell Young
Fanfare magazine, 2015, from http://www.fanfaremag.com/content/view/61546/10270/
Matthew Bengtson, whose devotion to the music of Scriabin is equaled only by his authority as a leading harpsichordist and fortepianist, has been turning the heads of both critics and the public. His recent recordings of the complete Scriabin sonatas emerged as if out of nowhere not only to unanimous critical acclaim, but to the astonishment of his colleagues as well. Devotees of the composer, both here and in Russia, have not heard this music played with comparable power and finesse since Vladimir Sofronitsky. On this side of the pond, more than one critic has compared Bengtson to Horowitz, and with good reason: he commands a transcendental technique wed to an impeccable musical understanding and imagination.
(.. John Bell Young, Fanfare magazine interview, July/August 2015)
These performances show that Bengtson grasps Scriabin’s emotional world with acute understanding, and his feeling for the later pieces … is especially revelatory. Despite the great complexity of lines, cross-rhythms, and dissonances that make Scriabin’s music daunting, Bengtson shapes it with poetic sensitivity and precision, putting these recordings among the finest contemporary interpretations.
(.. Blair Sanderson, allmusic.com, 2015)
Bengtson does a splendid job on the (5th) sonata, eliciting all the color and light in the music that one expects. .. he miraculously balances the tricky syncopations with perfect aplomb. .. all of the acknowledged great pianists who have tackled these sonatas have their own take on them, … and Matthew Bengtson can hold his own with any of them. .. The bottom line is that this is a fine set of the Scriabin sonatas, and Bengtson also plays the extra pieces on CD 2 with just the right feeling. Since I personally listen for the mysticism or implied mysticism in Scriabin, not brute force, I am more than happy with his recordings .. an excellent set of the Scriabin sonatas, and I recommend it.
(.. Lynn Rene Bayley, Fanfare, July/August 2015)
Appropriately hailed as a “musician’s pianist,” Bengtson has created a recording that is supremely colorful and expressive as a result of his keen attention to Scriabin’s idiosyncratic tempo and character markings as well as his exact rhythmic accuracy. (in Poeme op. 32 no. 1) he captures a dialogue between the voices that isn’t heard in most recordings. Overall, I find Bengtson’s recent recording to be a musically compelling and accurate rendering of Scriabin’s piano sonatas. I recommend it.
(.. Natalie Piontek, Fanfare, July/August 2015)
Bengtson’s wise approach is to allow the music to speak for itself; there is more than enough drama and dazzle already in the score. Furthermore, his more straightforward approach gives him the leeway to concentrate on such crucial elements as pacing and rhythmic inflection, areas in which these performances really excel. Bengtson has a knack for finding a natural pulse and tempo in his readings, a subtle quality .. that is essential for making the music spring to life. That sense of momentum is also abetted by Bengtson’s seemingly easy mastery of the quirky rhythms of the music. (.. Peter Burwasser, Broad Street Review, November 2015)
… Bengtson can caress Scriabin’s phrases in a breathtaking way … these performances are often striking in their color. (.. Peter J. Rabinowitz, Fanfare, July/August 2005 on Romeo 7232)