in: Reviews

December 8, 2011

Pianistic Peter Serkin’s Exciting Take

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It is likely that much of the audience packing the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Sunday, December 4th to hear a solo recital by Peter Serkin suspected that something unusual would happen, because Serkin has a well-earned reputation for offering programs that go well beyond the tried and true or the thrice-familiar. And those who might not have known this but came on the strength of his reputation as one of our finest pianists, would have learned soon enough when they received the program.

Serkin’s first half consisted entirely of non-tonal works written in the last 70 years, one of them a world premiere written for him. And by contrast the second half consisted of one of the concert world’s monster compositions in C major, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a work that, owing to its extraordinary physical and expressive demands, is more often spoken of in homage than put forth before an audience.

Serkin blended these two strongly contrasted halves into one of the most exciting recitals I have ever had the pleasure to hear. He has the special art of playing older music by the most familiar of composers — like Beethoven — as if they are earth-shakingly modern, and then to play a challenging new piece as if it belongs without question in the long historical tradition of music. Sunday’s program seemed almost designed as a case study in these two aspects of his work.

The program opened with Stefan Wolpe’s Toccata in Three Parts (1941), a work I can’t remember having heard live before. Wolpe’s music has been challenging audiences from the beginning with its complexity and tonal acerbity. Born in Germany, he studied in Berlin, was inspired by the Bauhaus architects to a craggy modernism, though he was influenced by such diverse forces as Busoni, American jazz, and songs designed for the Communist movement. He spent most of the decade of the 1930s in Israel, then settled in the United States in 1938, where he attracted a band of disciples who honored him highly and supported efforts to get his music performed more often. Even today, though, his music is far more often discussed in articles or analysis of highly technical theory than it is heard in performance.

Were Wolpe’s music always played as well as the Toccata on this occasion, it would be welcomed by many audiences. As the title suggests, it is cast with the rhythmic gestures and contrapuntal structure of a Baroque keyboard composition, laid out in three continuous sections suggesting the fast-slow-fast movement plan of a Baroque concerto. What made it so ingratiating here was the extraordinary clarity of the busy contrapuntal lines as laid out by Serkin, giving the piece a boyish, athletic quality in the fast outer movements, as if Bach himself had suddenly done a two-century time shift to a later harmonic style; the contrasting slow movement (which Wolpe labeled “Too much suffering in the world”) was still essentially contrapuntal in its ongoing flow, but more pensive in mood. The return to the vigorous interplay of lines in the fugal close brought back the limber energy of the opening.

The other two pieces on the first half were both quieter and more sustained in character and were both works by composers with whom Peter Serkin has enjoyed a long and fruitful connection.  Toru Takemitsu’s For Away (a title derived, the composer explained, from Finnegan’s Wake, and all-too frequently corrected editorially to Far Away) is a sort of cross between lush Debussyesque arpeggios and gentle chords resounding over and above repeated and sustained pedal points and some possible echoes of Balinese gamelan, which the composer had experienced first-hand not long before composing this piece. Serkin’s touch projected the pedals in their sustained sonority without overwhelming the (usually) delicate sprays of sonority above and below, covering essentially the full range of the keyboard.

The new work, receiving its first performance on Sunday, was Charles Wuorinen’s Adagio, a twelve-minute movement written for Peter Serkin. Wuorinen has generally retained his commitment to the kind of intense serial musical language that predominated in the third quarter of the 20th century, a dissonant language that many composers, even of Wuorinen’s own generation, have backed off from. He is perhaps not quite so in-your-face with it as he once was, for Adagio, though built (according to the program note) on three essential intervals — a perfect fifth from G to D and two very dissonant combinations — the minor second and the minor ninth unfolds with a slow emphasis on consonance, while the dissonant elements are expressions of stabbing tension that carries the activity all over the keyboard before returning to the midpoint with the opening fifth, a kind of “tonal return,” perhaps, but in a distinctly modernist manner. Here too the varieties of touch and attack, legato or staccato, sustaining and changing the moods with dynamic contrast throughout.

The second half of the program offered just the one piece, Beethoven’s Thirty-Three Variations on a Theme of Diabelli, Beethoven’s astonishing response to an invitation from Anton Diabelli, a composer establishing a publishing house in Vienna, to write a variation on a rather silly 32-bar waltz theme of his own concoction. Diabelli sent this invitation out widely and some 50 composers responded. When the results were in, Diabelli published the contributions of all but one of these composers — many minor figures among them, but also including Czerny, Hummel, the son of Mozart, Schubert, and an 11-year old boy named Liszt — into Volume II of the published variations. He did this after receiving from Beethoven a breath-taking collection of variations which filled one volume all by itself.

Beethoven’s variations range so widely in mood and character that many of them sound like unrelated original pieces, especially to the first-time listener in a concert hall, though close analysis can show how Beethoven has derived them from the little Diabelli waltz. In one sense, the variations form an entire library of “character pieces,” that popular romantic genre of small individual movements, each of which creates a single mood or character in a very short space of time — from 30 seconds to three minutes or so — and which we normally associate with a Schumann or a Chopin, though Beethoven was already doing the same thing in his Bagatelles. The Diabelli Variations, then, can be considered as a gigantic set of such character pieces, held together by the fact of their C-major tonality (mostly) and their relationship to the substance of the original waltz.

Peter Serkin’s performance ranged from the light-hearted triviality of the opening to thunderous evocations of pianistic sonority, to contrapuntal display, to the delightful passing reference to Leporello in Don Giovanni, and evoking the past with fugal subjects while anticipating the future with the exploitation of the then most modern type of piano. Even the pauses between movements seemed calculated just right to allow the sonority of the previous variation to clear and set up anticipation for whatever Beethoven had next in mind. I have heard the Diabelli Variations described as “a much of a muchness,” implying that it is simply too much to sit through at one time — but certainly not if played with the variety, color, brilliance, driving force, and expressive intelligence as Peter Serkin played it here.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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