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Challenge and Conquest

New York
92nd Street Y, Theresa L. Kaufman Concert Hall
12/09/2011 -  
Stephen Wolpe: Toccata in Three Parts
Tōru Takemitsu: For Away
Charles Wuorinen: Adagio (New York premiere)
Ludwig van Beethoven: 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli in C major, Op. 120

Peter Serkin (Pianist)

P. Serkin (© Kathy Chapman/CMArtists)

A Peter Serkin recital is never a walk in the park. Like his father, who performed the Serialists long before it was fashionable, Peter Serkin has never contented himself with the usual 19th Century fare. That would be too easy, especially for a man of his exceptional intellect and technique. And not fair to audiences who know that his recitals will be challenging.

When playing as a soloist with orchestra–as he did in the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments last August–the 25 minutes can offer the satisfaction of an entire concert. When playing a solo recital, as he did for the 92nd Street Y as part of their Great Performers series, Peter Serkin’s choices are aural gauntlets for the audiences, as they are cerebral and digital challenges for the artist himself.

Mr. Serkin did have a very special claque, though. Charles Wuorinen, like the late Milton Babbitt, has been an unremittingly difficult serial composer. But the audience last night was packed with his colleagues. Besides which Mr. Wuorinen, in attendance for this New York premiere, has written several other works for Mr. Serkin, theirs being an understanding of minds.

That 12-minute Adagio, co-commissioned by 92 Y, was not exactly a harbinger of the Christmas spirit. But its difficulties were allayed much by the program notes. They were technical to a degree, but also gave simple instructions on its form.

Specifically, the Adagio had two bases: a dissonant minor-second for the tension, and an open fifth interval for relative quiescence. Knowing this was enough, on a first hearing, to apprehend the styles of the piece. It may indeed have been a form of serialism, but it was the use of these two intervals which gave it an interest, even–in a surprising forte chord near the end–the sound of surprise.

One might say it was the usual cerebral puzzle by Mr. Wuorinen, but Mr. Serkin revealed that before it had been composed, he had dreamed of the work. The God of Austerity let down His guard.

Next to this, the opening Stefan Wolpe Toccata was sheer delight, a fun three-movement piece from a composer hardly played in America at all. Wolpe, though, was the most eclectic composer, and the jigs, fugues and moderate middle movement (titled “Too much suffering in the world”) were played with delight by Mr. Serkin. That double fugue was especially difficult, and at times, the pianist seemed to be less than spontaneous, trying to hack through the underbrush. But those difficulties themselves were part of the attraction.

Toru Takemitsu’s For Away, influenced by James Joyce and the music of Bali, was short, elegiac and forgettable. Had this been labelled “Improvisations on a Series of Gamelan Motifs”, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The second half was devoted to the “Diabelli” Variations. Beethoven called them “transformations”, far more descriptive, since most “variation” settings of that time were straightforward and simple. Beethoven of course surveyed the entire range of piano literature in these 33 movements, and only master pianists can sustain the arduous tasks of keeping them together.

Mr. Serkin started with some lighthearted (and highly percussive) sounds. But after the Mozart variation, Number 22, he became more and more serious. By the end, one realized that Beethoven, in his last years, had laid out an entire lifetime of music. Mr. Serkin’s utter seriousness–ending with the silly waltz at the end–a reflection of his sense of unity, understanding and absolutely magnetic playing.

Harry Rolnick



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