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Peter Serkin and Longy’s New Steinway


Peter Serkin opened his program at the Longy School of Music Saturday night, April 11th with a piece by John Bull. What would have been originally heard on early keyboard technology, namely the virginal (a small harpsichord) of Elizabethan times, tonight, was heard on the school’s newly acquired Steinway D piano.

For those familiar with Serkin’s far-reaching repertoire, this unusual selection of music does not surprise. Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la is the title and the sequence of tones upon which Dr. Bull composed four-part counterpoint. Serkin led the ear through an immaculately voiced polyphony. It was wonderful to be able to follow the ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la-la, sol, fa, mi, re, ut throughout his playing. After 17 daring but systematic go-arounds (12 of which covered all of the possible 12 keys), a sameness emerged. Apparent allusions to the virginal sound took second place to a pianistic approach.

Next, followed music actually composed for the piano and probably most often played on 19th-century French models, particularly those made by the firm of Pleyel. Well known is the fact that Debussy entreated pianists to make the instrument sound as though it had no hammers.

Reading from the score as he had with the Bull, Serkin created a “unique” Debussy atmosphere with hammerless playing. His touch in Six Epigraphes Antiques was as finely tuned as it will ever get-no exaggeration. But here, too, perhaps because his focus had so much to do with sound, movement was minimized. Of exceptional beauty, his Debussy was, nevertheless, emotionless.

In addition to its “brand new” Steinway, even greater excitement abounds at the school with Longy president Karen L. Zorn’s announcement of “the faculty appointment of Peter Serkin as Distinguished Artist in Residence.” His performance marks the start of a three-year series, “Unique Voices at Longy.”

Going further with what I imagine one of his intentions might have been, Serkin chose Suite in C minor BWV 997 because Bach wrote it specifically for a curious instrument, the lute cembalo. Bach, at his death, owned two of these instruments which, it has been noted, sounded very much like the German lutes of the day.

To me there was something lute-like in his approach when he allowed an after-ring for notes to suggest the lute’s vibrating strings. It could have been the new piano, my side balcony seat, the acoustics, the heating of the hall itself, or a combination that caused a monochromatic effect overall. Finding enough crispness, or staccatos-a pluck-for contrast to the prevailing smoothness of the legato became futile. Even more apparent in the Bach was Serkin’s penchant for overly highlighting voices. Hard accents eluded the expected: punctuation.

To conclude his program, Serkin played Variations and Fugue in B-flat on a Theme by Handel, Op. 23 by Brahms. “Brahms had a Streicher of 1868 with Viennese action, put at his disposal by the firm…”states The New Harvard Dictionary. Yet, what would Peter Serkin communing with this recent New York-built Steinway yield? Transparency shone through nearly every variation, several were over-pedaled, the last was not clear. The fugue began with some brilliance but thereafter sameness again emerged. The climactic final cadence did not materialize.

Three encores followed. He opened up, let fun in and the audience loved it.

A promising program and promising piano can also be remembered as an evening of technical wizardry and hypnotic abstractionism, hearkening back to the ’50s and ’60s.  If your taste is for the intellectual, you might well have been spellbound.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

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