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This lucid translation helps piano lovers to understand the literary expression of a major keyboard composer. Scriabin (1871-1915) was to some extent a wounded soul, partly due to an injury to his right hand when he was 20. The English pianist Nicholls notes in an introduction that some of Scriabin’s subsequent compositions reflect this trauma, including the Prélude et nocturne pour la main gauche seule Op 9 and the Prelude in A minor Op 51/1, entitled ‘Fragilité’. In the latter, Nicholls points out, the ‘lefthand carries both a melodic line and an accompaniment, as in Op 9’.

Scriabin adopted writing as a form of therapy to help himself and others. His favoured format was windy verse, possibly influenced by Nietzsche, a French translation of Walt Whitman, or ancient Sanskrit texts known as the Upanishads: ‘I am God!/ I am nothing, I am play, I am freedom, I am life.’ Although Scriabin praised the Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky, he avoided her tendentious didactic style. Scriabin wrote of himself as piano composer and performer: ‘I have come not to teach but to caress (but to torment). I bring not truth but freedom.’

If music indeed is uneducational, Scriabin makes up by offering advice to encourage his readers, presumed to include legions of ungifted people: ‘If a lack of talent torments and depresses you, this is a sign of a seed of talent; cultivate it and do not despair.’ His Poem of Ecstasy (1906) uncannily prefigures the trench warfare of the first world war, with mention of ‘pitted/ Paths covered in corpses’. A somewhat perfunctory foreword by Vladimir Ashkenazy, a much-praised interpreter of Scriabin’s works, bafflingly asserts that the composer believed that ‘once he ceased to exist, the world would also come to an end’.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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