Articles by and about James Kreger

James Kreger on Scriabin

Scriabin: Master of Sound — Door to the Universe

by James Kreger

My initial exposure to the music of Scriabin goes back to my childhood years, when I purchased my first Vladimir Horowitz recording, the recital commemorating the 25th anniversary of his American debut at Carnegie Hall. It contains three works by Scriabin: Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 (in one movement); Étude in B-Flat Minor, Op. 8, No. 7; and Étude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 42, No. 5. There are no words to adequately describe the sense of transport I experienced upon listening to these magnificent works for the first time. The fact that it was a live performance by Vladimir Horowitz did not hurt either! As a matter of fact, I am sure this experience instantly, and indelibly, engraved upon my consciousness a true sense of sound, color, expression, cantilena: all aspects of this indeed mystic, cosmic composer Scriabin. Years later it was my good fortune to come upon a recording of Sviatoslav Richter’s transcendent live performance of the complete Études, from Moscow in the 1950’s. Those wonderful performances bring to mind Richter’s teacher Neuhaus, who called tone production “the substance of music” in his treatise The Art of Piano Playing. Indeed the importance of being able to produce many colors and timbres is discussed. I am convinced this is an example of the enormous influence Scriabin had on his contemporaries, not to mention all those who came after him.


Years later, when I was still in my early 20’s, it was my good fortune to meet Faubion Bowers. At that time Faubion had just completed his magnum opus, Scriabin, the first edition of which was published by Kodansha International. Now it has been re-printed in a completely revised edition by Dover Press. At that time I was still a student at the Juilliard School and playing quite a lot with pianist Garrick Ohlsson. I remember one evening Faubion telling me he had a gift for me. It was the music for the only original cello work by Scriabin, the early Romance (for horn or cello, and piano). The first time I played it was with Garrick, and I still remember the excitement and sense of wonder at that experience. Since then I have played the Romance many times with different pianists, and it never ceases to amaze me, always retaining its freshness — indeed the “romance” of youth. Recently I came upon an old 78 rpm disc of the Romance, an inspiring performance by the great Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and pianist Ivor Newton. I also have played other pieces by Scriabin, all transcriptions from the original piano, and the music does adapt quite well to the character of the cello, with its enormous range of sound and color potential, as well as its natural cantilena qualities.

In 1974 I was a participant in the International Tchaikovsky Competition, Moscow. One day I remember going over to the Scriabin Museum with my friend, the late pianist Joseph Villa, who was competing in the piano division. The curator Irena Sofronitzka greeted us and played some recordings by Vladimir Sofronitsky. She also showed us the light machine (with the original color bulbs?!) used by Scriabin in his compositions, and both Joseph and I played on Scriabin’s piano, an experience I’ll never forget. Although I had long before become a confirmed Scriabin “addict,” the inspiration and mystery of being in that house, the actual room where he composed, seemed to bring everything together.

Perhaps Scriabin’s music could only come out of Russia, with its long tradition of folklore, religion, and mysticism.

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Cellist James Kreger