We are living through a period of remarkable pianism, with terrific young players popping up everywhere you look and making impressive strides in rethinking concerts and willing new repertoire into being.
But there is also a good deal of hype to go along with that, amplified enormously by the power of social media. And so it is something of a respite to encounter an artist from the older school of pianism and concert-giving, and commune briefly with the artistic considerations of a more elevated age.
Saturday night at Lynn University, a sold-out house at the Amarnick-Goldstein Concert Hall heard a recital by Peter Serkin, who has had a long and distinguished career not just in the core Germanic repertory but in works by high modernists such as Charles Wuorinen. Now 70, Serkin is a link to a glorious past, not just through his father, the great pianist Rudolf Serkin, but his grandfather Adolf Busch, a violinist and chamber music titan who was admired for his serious, non-flashy approach.
True to his artistic heritage, Peter Serkin programmed three canonical pieces, two by Mozart in the first half of the recital, and the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach in the second. His playing was at all times tasteful, sensitive and deeply musical; so much so that the things he did in this repertoire were quite subtle and arrived as the antithesis of hubris.
The Goldberg Variations, which occupied the second half of the program, has been a special treat for pianists and listeners since it came roaring back into the active repertory in 1955 with Glenn Gould’s astonishing disc. But Serkin has recorded this monument to the theme-and-variations form no less than four times, and his Saturday recital demonstrated that this is music in his bones.
If you were looking for something like Gouldian prestidigitational wizardry as the primary architecture of this interpretation, you would have had to look elsewhere, but that’s not because Serkin’s technical apparatus was in anyway faulty or incapable of the bravura needed in something like the 14th variation. The depth in this reading of the work was in the colors he brought to it: the stressing of the Gesualdo-like harmonic extravagance of the 25th variation, for instance, followed by a pianissimo blur in the succeeding 26th.
And he did his best to make each variation have a distinct character, which in this music is critically important since most of it is in the same key (G major) and on a modern piano doesn’t have the natural shading and tonal variety that could be found in the kind of two-manual harpsichord Bach wrote it for in the early 1740s. And so the 12th variation canon was played with nobility and sharply etched lines, leading into a tender reading of the most expressive of the variations, the 13th, with its touch of romanticism at the cadence. The 19th variation murmured with a liquid beauty, and the fugal 22nd variation strode forward with optimism and high spirits.
Serkin was entirely engaged in his performance, snapping his head along with the accents, mouthing phrases as he played them, his tall frame hunched over the instrument as he immersed himself in the difficult task of finding something personal to say through the medium of this familiar music. It was a deeply satisfying rendition, a message from the old school, and one that told its auditors that you don’t have to focus only on fireworks to offer a meaningful interpretation of this singular monument.
The concert opened with the Adagio (K. 540) of Mozart, a single movement in B minor written in 1788 that looks forward to the drama of composers 50 years later. It’s a beautiful, intimate movement, and Serkin played it tastefully, staying within its parameters and declining to overstate the three-chord breaks that divide up the piece’s sectional rhetoric.
He followed that with a late sonata (1789), the one in B-flat (K. 570), which was probably written as a teaching piece. It doesn’t therefore have the same kind of complexity or breadth of some of his earlier, non-didactic works, but it does contain plenty of Mozartean narrative surprises and harmonic richness. Here, too, Serkin played with purity and relative detachment, working primarily on behalf of the music in a way that’s hard to find today, but which you treasure all the more when you do.