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Bipolar Piano: Serkin vs. Serkin

Once again we have to thank George A. Pieler for lending his big ears and sharp wit to Ionarts. This time at the WPAS-presented recital of Serkin-ex-Perahia at Strathmore.

Peter SerkinPeter Serkin, substituting for the indisposed Murray Perahia Wednesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, is a serious, probing, intellectual pianist who can deliver the goods in sheer technique but shies away from the so-called virtuoso repertoire (Liszt, Rachmaninoff, name your own). Like his father Rudolf, like Schnabel in an earlier generation and Brendel today (all very different pianists, but each a ‘thinking person’s’ player), Serkin wants us to take him very, very seriously.

Maybe too seriously, at times. At Strathmore Serkin surely lived up to his reputation despite some quirks and a few real clunkers. The first quirk was in his program itself, with no crowd-pleasing opening and precious little relief from a certain somberness—four Renaissance-to-late-Renaissance transcriptions to start, followed by a Bach chorale and his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. That’ the first half, mostly slow and inward music, all of it adapted to the modern sound of the Steinway grand. The second half consisted of Beethoven’s formidable, massive, colossal Hammerklavier sonata, Op. 106.

First up was a ‘realization’ or ‘re-imagining’ by Charles Wuorinen of Ave Christe immolate, a motet (disputably) attributed to Josquin Des Prez. Wuorinen’s version sounds nothing like Wuorinen but definitely sounds like the Renaissance; spare and unfolding gradually, the lines of the motet simply rendered. The sounds of Gregorian chant, new age music, bell-tolling and even George Crumb came to mind in the short span of the piece, which Serkin rendered in a stately rather dry manner.

He followed with three pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book: Bull’s Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la (slow polyphonic variations on the note-sequence but stepping up the pace for a rousing end); Dowland’s Pavana Lachrymae, (adapted by Byrd), a slow dance by definition and seeming quite slow in this performance; and Byrd’s own La Volta, which Serkin used to wake up the audience (never have I heard so many dropped programs disrupting so short a period of concert-time), launching into this rhythmically sharp dance without a pause and playing it almost with violence. His Byrd had duende, which in flamenco means something like ‘dark magic’—biting power and fine rhythmic control, heavily pedaled to heighten the effect, authentic or not.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, From Peter Serkin, Engrossing Pianism (Washington Post, March 31)
The Bach sequence began with the brief, quiet chorale setting Wer nur den Lieben Gott lässt walten (‘if thou but suffer God to guide thee’) as included in the Anna Magdalena Notebook, lightly ornamented with no pedal. Without pause Serkin launched into the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, brilliantly and again almost violently rendered. Indeed throughout the evening he underlined stark contrasts in the music, the slow a bit more slow than usual (almost coming to a standstill at times in the Fantasy & Fugue), the fast notably faster. In the Fantasy his use of pedal achieved an almost organ-like tone at times, which in a resonant hall may have been too much of a good thing. Serkin’s tone turned hard in the louder climaxes of the piece, not so pleasant but apparently an interpretive choice, instructing us the music breaks the bounds of what the keyboard can do.

No chance for rest after intermission, as Serkin blasted the opening chords of the Hammerklavier while the audience was still filing in. As an audience-grabber it worked, and he had everyone’s attention at last. Those opening chords, which dominate the piece, are not easily forgotten though Serkin hammered them out fast and (again) rather violently, then teasing out the quiet second theme rather slowly. He nearly came to grief at the exposition repeat with some nasty notes in those hammered chords, and indeed seemed to have lost composure in the first half of the movement.

But then Serkin hit his stride, justifying his sharp contrasting of the thematic material with a tightly integrated, muscular yet clearly articulated performance of the balance of the movement. Throughout the sonata, even more so than in the Bach Chromatic Fantasy, the sheer force he applied to the keyboard seemed to break the bounds of the instrument (indeed somebody better check that Steinway out), but here it’s appropriate—that’s exactly what Beethoven was trying to do.

Serkin leaped into the brief scherzo without break, fast but not too loud, bringing a touch of diablerie that reminds one of a Shostakovich scherzo, sardonic and breathless. Given Serkin’s inward approach to his Renaissance selections I had high hopes for the slow movement, Adagio sostenuto, and largely they were realized. For comparison I had listened to 1970’s recordings of the Hammerklavier by Brendel and Serkin pêre [not exactly towering accounts; the latter especially setting the bar nice and low –Ed.jr.], neither of whom held this movement together as well as Peter Serkin did. In his late sonatas Beethoven relies on texture, contrast, and fantasy, not melody to carry the music forward, and playing steadily with fine articulation Serkin truly carried off one of the most challenging movements in the sonatas. Here I thought was the peak of the program.

But then Serkin played the bejeezus out of the fugal finale, and I realized I’d been premature. From the slow introduction to the Bachian trills, notes flying everywhere, Serkin made every moment tell—as Charles Rosen puts it, “Beethoven’s fugues are dramatically conceived: each new passage is presented as an event, and not as a logical consequence of its predecessor”. Each episode was an event in Serkin’s hands yet he pulled the whole edifice together brilliantly (again a bit violent) but not wrong for this piece. The audience appreciated the effort, and was rewarded by some calming-down music: a short, quiet Beethoven bagatelle.

A word about Strathmore: this was my first visit, and though most Ionarts readers may already know the facility, the Music Center is a beautiful hall inside, elegantly and rationally laid out with lots of wood (hence the resonance) and a pleasing balance between stark lines and curvature. One suspects it is more suited, acoustically, to a large ensemble. Less agreeable is the access to and from the seating, multi-leveled in an unexpected way and with the service parts of the facility (dining, drinking, shopping) so closely integrated as to present an obstacle course — yet challenges must be faced for fine music such as this. Indeed, one might think of facing them again for Yundi Li on April 1st.


Anonymous said...

Op. 106 definitely is not Brendel's piece, but he and R Serkin are polar opposites in this which makes the contrast instructive. But R Serkin's account (rec. 1969-70) in no way sets the bar low: one may think his manner a bit dry and percussive but in this music it drives home the drama and tensions of the piece quite well. Not the Pollini-type 'perfection' that can eviscerate such explosive music.


Anonymous said...

It should at least be noted, in a day when intelligent concert programming seems a lost art, that Mr. Serkin did make a point with his, ending part one with a Bach fugue preceded by a variation-like piece (the Fantasy), and part two with a Beethoven fugue preceded by a fantasy-like slow movement. He does make the audience think.

Rune Eggpoe