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Searchin' for Serkin

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/24/2003 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonatas Nos. 30, 31 & 32
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

The twentieth century was, for many serious music devotees, an era of degeneration, and so it is not surprising that the two greatest pianists born within its boundaries should have come into being in its earliest stages. That most intellectual of concert artists, Rudolf Serkin, was born in 1903 and, although there is some debate about this, it appears that Vladimir Horowitz was also introduced to this veil of tears exactly 100 years ago. Mr. Serkin earned the great respect of all (and the love of some) for his measured and thoughtful approach to the classics. His performances always seemed to penetrate to the heart of a composition’s construction, even though many found his interpretations a bit cold and analytical. I have always been firmly in the Serkin camp, partly because he played at my school on a regular basis and introduced my generation there to many of the most profound and complex works of the past. I still maintain that his recording of Max Reger’s Variations on a Theme of J. S. Bach is the finest pianistic achievement of the electronic age. Serkin was for many years the head of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont and one of the two pianists who now hold that post, Mitsuko Uchida, dedicated her Carnegie Hall recital last evening to his memory.

Choosing the last three sonatas of Beethoven, Ms. Uchida stepped out of character in order to explore the pieces in the Serkin manner. There were some extremely interesting results of this Procrustean personality transplant, especially in the variation movement of the 30th and the fuga section of the 31st. Eschewing all dramatic effect and denying her own innate sense of merriment (ironically, one of the most pronounced traits of Mr. Serkin), this normally charismatic player seemed this night more a forensic scientist, interested in the details but perhaps forgetting the desired emotional impact sought by the composer. This is something that Rudolf Serkin would never do: his readings were always filled with humanity, never sterile. Ms. Uchida, on the other hand, sounded uncharacteristically dry and mechanical, at least to this listener.

I had not heard the 32nd since the afternoon previous, when Garrick Ohlsson performed it magnificently. This highly dramatic work may be a bit much for a small-handed practitioner and the contrast between Mr. Ohlsson’s high tragedy and Ms. Uchida’s reflective academicism may simply have had its genesis in the difference in their body types. Competing with both Serkin and Ohlsson was a bit overwhelming; in any case, this current rendition was but a pale shadow of either of its predecessors.

Although I am sure that her motives were pure, this type of homage to an inspiring mentor requires examination of the totality of what constituted his greatness in the first place. Rudolf Serkin was much more than a musical archaeologist. His delving into the nature of the building blocks of the works he performed was a method leading to the most thorough enunciation of the beauty and power of each of the pieces in question. For Mitsuko Uchida to replicate this type of cerebral pianism, she must dig quite a bit deeper beneath the sands of time.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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