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Peter's Greatest Hits

New York
Metropolitan Museum
05/21/2004 -  
Oliver Knussen: Variations, Op. 24
Toru Takemitsu: For Away
Luciano Berio: Wasser, Erden, Luft, Feuerklavier
Olivier Messiaen: from Des canyons aux etoiles
Ludwig van Beethoven: Diabelli Variations

Peter Serkin (piano)

If authenticity and ownership are one’s benchmarks for classical music evaluation, then one must turn to Peter Serkin as a master of personalized music making. Last evening’s recital at the Metropolitan Museum consisted almost exclusively of works written for, or closely associated with, this scion of a notable musical family, who has become over time perhaps the best ambassador currently representing the cause of contemporary music in the rather frigid atmosphere of audience indifference and pop-inspired speciousness. Mr. Serkin presented two approximately equal halves of recital programming, each representing the end of specific eras in the history of art music.

The hard to define post-Webern era was first up. Beginning with a set of variations written for him by Oliver Knussen, Serkin established from the outset that he is the confident authority in this type of exercise, which, rather predictably, turned out to be a dry as dust reworking of one rhythmic figure from the groundbreaking second of the Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11 of Arnold Schoenberg, violating the Viennese master’s first rule of composition: “don’t copy me!”. This dense journey seemed to quickly get lost in the groves of academe and should probably be exiled back there as expeditiously as possible, but the soloist obviously believes in it and gave his all. Much more poetically satisfying was the miniature For Away (sic) by a composer intimately associated with Serkin and his old cohorts from Tashi. Here the colors of Takemitsu came through as a pastel piece redefined in day-glo, evocative of a particular time and place in the counterculture history of art.

The big surprise of the evening was a set of four piano pieces by Luciano Berio, a composer not particularly associated with the instrument, but, once again, the dedicatee of one of them being Peter Serkin, one can easily grasp the inspirational relationship between soloist and creator. This quartet of rhapsodies, representing the four elements, were each incredibly beautiful (when was the last time you heard a piece written after 1950 that you would classify as lyrically emotive?) and reveal the softer side of this revolutionary Italian who spent many years immersed in the music of Schubert and Brahms and who has produced glorious re-orchestrations of both. Hearing Peter Serkin play these lovely essays will stick in the mind and ear for many years to come. Finally, two movements from Messiaen that Peter has championed in full version at Alice Tully: lots of notes and bird calls, multiple rhythms and tempi, kaleidoscopic colors, masterful performance.

Unfortunately, all of this “new” music (only the Knussen is really fresh, although stale, having been conceived in the late 1980’s) was greeted with but a smattering of applause from the crowd, many of whom have children older than Mr. Serkin. The audience really only came to life after Peter’s fine traversal of the Beethoven, a work that he performed exceedingly well at Carnegie not too long ago. A critic friend, noting that I would be attending this performance, quipped that hearing Peter Serkin play the Diabellis is like listening to Liza (with a Z) belt out “Over the Rainbow”, since Serkin pere owned this piece for many recital years. Having been blessed to hear Rudolf often at my school, I can remember well his Beethoven. But this was not your father’s Diabelli; where the elder was intellectual and architectural, the younger is more contemplative and relaxed. In Peter’s hands, the material is more searching (oddly like that of the Schoenberg piece that inspired Knussen), the journey less formal, but no less impressive. After this solid effort, the crowd responded joyfully and triggered in this reviewer a comparison: late Beethoven heralds the Romantic era, but what comes after post-modernism?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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