Peter Serkin plays Schoenberg, Debussy, Kurtág, Wuorinen and Chopin at Carnegie Hall

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Peter Serkin

Peter Serkin. Photo Kathy Chapman.

Peter Serkin, Piano
Carnegie Hall, Zankel Hall, December 10, 2009

Schoenberg – Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11

Debussy – 6 épigraphes antiques

György Kurtág – Selections from Játékok

–Pen Drawing, Valediction to Erzsébet Schaár
–(…and round and round it goes…)
–The mind will have its freedom…

Charles Wuorinen, Scherzo

Chopin, Polonaise in C Minor, Op. 40, No. 2
Chopin, Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29
Chopin, Etude in A-flat Major from Trois nouvelles études
Chopin, Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62, No. 2

Schoenberg, Suite for Piano, Op. 25

Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 866
Chopin, Etude in G-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 9, “Butterfly”
Chopin, Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2

Peter Serkin is indisputably one of Tanglewood’s great draws. His Music Shed performances with the BSO always sure to bring a a close to capacity crowd, and, in decent weather, to populate the lawn quite amply. Nonetheless I’m far more impressed by his ability to attract a little over 500 avid admirers to leave only a few empty seats in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall to hear a somewhat esoteric program. In fact it was a brilliant program, and, as much as I admire Peter Serkin in general, this typically Serkinesque program was what made this recital impossible to resist. It began with early atonal Schoenberg and ended with one of his serial pieces. Second on the program was the piano solo version (1914/15) of Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques, which is quite a rarity. When the work is performed it is usually in its primary version for piano four hands. It is Debussy at his most spare and intense, and it is perhaps not hard to understand why it is not among his more popular works. Following on this, came even more concentrated music, four excerpts from the great György Kurtág’s Játékok, his own version of a didactic cycle in the spirit of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. The first half closed with Charles Wuorinen’s Scherzo, written in 2007 specifically for Peter Serkin. Most of the second half was occupied by an interesting Chopin set, in which Serkin mostly eschewed the war horses, except for the much-beloved E Major Nocturne. Then, as I mentioned the official program ended with Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25 (1921-23), the composer’s own hommage to the Baroque.

Serkin clearly had a specific rationale in mind in juxtaposing these works, and this influenced his approach. He was mostly interested in what the pieces had in common than in making dramatic contrasts. Hence, his Schoenberg was flowing, coherent, and refined in tone; the Debussy sharp edged and detailed, and the Kurtàg finely nuanced. The Scherzo by his friend, Wuorinen, he could only meet on its own terms, since its moods, sounds, and musical detail were so complex and wide-ranging. The Chopin was meditative and detailed. As a whole Mr. Serkin projected a most definite concept of each composer and his music, always probing and closely argued. His considerable labors did not go unrewarded. The audience was hanging on every note, not merely with intellectual interest but with a noticeable warmth and affection—and that seems to be one’s natural response to this uncompromisingly serious music-making. The thing is, he enjoys it all so much! No Schoenbergian jeu d’esprit or brilliant turn in Debussy, Kurtág, and Chopin passed without a subtle inward smile. The expansive, but tightly knit Wuorinen presented him with terrific fun for the brain and the fingers. What’s more, the thoughtful appreciation of his audience wasn’t lost on him. As active as he mind was he seemed comfortable in knowing that he was not alone in his musical journey. Peter Serkin’s New York recitals are clearly nothing like business as usual. This was intimate and intense, recalling the almost teary warmth of Tashi’s reunion concert at Tanglewood in 2008, an event which will never be forgotten, with its magnificent performance of their signature piece, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Serkin’s Schoenberg performances were quite the most musical and satisfying I have heard, mainly because he was not afraid produced sensually beautiful timbres, and because he fully understood the rests and pauses as silent parts of the musical fabric itself. These were full of musical significance , and their rhythmic values were rendered with a kind of perfection not even Brendel and Pollini have achieved. Every note, every phrase, in these brief pieces was in place, but they all flowed in a natural, musically intuitive way. (After this and Sir Simon Rattle’s performances, we’ll all be whistling Schoenberg’s tunes on the way out of the concert hall, as he desired.) In the Three Pieces, Schoenberg has by no means left the shadow of late Romanticism, his primary revolt is in breaking up the themes into small, abrupt phrases, which contrast with one another. Otherwise we can enjoy them as we’d enjoy Schumann, Brahms, or Liszt. Their epigrammatic brevity is their most twentieth century characteristic—and let’s not forget that Beethoven and Schumann were good at that as well.

This was the Carnegie Hall premiere of the solo version of Debussy’s 6 épigraphes antiques. The original four hand version was an arrangement of passages from his Chansons de Bilitis, a song cycle from Pierre Louÿs’ curious book (1894) of narrative and prose poems, which was presented as a translation of rediscovered Greek originals, carved on the tomb of their principal figure, Bilitis, a Pamphlyian courtesan, whose true love was devoted to young women. The collection was accepted, even by some experts, as genuine, at the time. There was of course a scandal. There is a tradition of casting homoerotic poetry as after the antique, and we may wonder whether Louÿs’ gesture of forgery was a distraction from his celebration of lesbian sexuality or an attempt at sensationalizing his work even further. In any case, in 1914 Debussy rearranged the music for piano four hands with the more neutral, but evocative title of 6 épigraphes antiques, which would still refer to Louÿs pretended tomb inscriptions, while Louÿs’ strophed prose poems imitated epigrams from the Greek Anthology. Serkin, restricting the sensual dreaminess which dominates many performances of this work only to passages in which it is inevitable, focussed our attention on the variety of Debussy’s expression and the rigor of his composition. These are thoroughly modern works, in his view, with the fin de siècle chansons a distant memory. In Serkin’s interpretation these are multi-faceted recollections of moments in a time long-vanished. There are sensual moments, but eroticism is focused on the intensified post-coital perceptions of atmosphere and nature. Nonetheless the sense of continuity and overall shape was intact, while Serkin delved into the fine details and evanescent colors and feelings in the music. A rediscovery of this great, but rarely performed music is a revelation in itself.

If Serkin played the Debussy as reduced, concentrated expression, he followed them with even more concentrated works by Kurtág, which themselves owe something to the economies of Bartók and Webern. even in their very short duration, he was able to engage in a wealth of color, wit, and feeling.

When Peter Serkin’s Chopin recordings came out almost thirty years ago, his insight and seriousness were highly praised, and they earned a reputation as Chopin for people who hate Chopin, or at least hate Artur Rubinstein’s way with his music. (I belong in neither category, although, at the time I might have fallen into the second. I’ve since outgrown the prejudice.) Today, Serkin is continuing in the same direction, even more interestingly than before. He pays close attention to the structure of the works, as well as the drama of contrasting moods. He applies color functionally, to mark structure, to support arresting modulations, or to express a change of mood. His Chopin is not merely pretty. To open all this up, he often adopts rather slow tempi. In a way Peter Serkin seems to look at Chopin as the successor of Schubert in his opus posthumous sonatas. To my ears these were deeply satisfying interpretations, giving this last word its full value. The Chopin also benefitted from the challenging first half of the program, which opened our ears, preparing us to listen to fine details. The great Nocturne was deeply moving. He drew so much meaning from both hands in the middle section that the music seemed to take on an almost schizoid quality.

In Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano Serkin successfully brought out the baroque, dance-like qualities of the music, as well as its intensity and logic. Again, his rhythmic precision both in the notes and in the rests gave the work terrific pungency and character, enough to make Pollini’s highly admired recording seem bland.

Appropriately enough, Serkin offered Bach for his first encore, not from a suite as one might have expected, but from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, before returning to Chopin—as fresh and original as in the main program.


About the author

The Editor

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts, an International Journal for the Arts and The Berkshire Review, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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