Serkin gets serious, takes audience on journey through post-war music

By John Zhu

Sunday afternoon’s Peter Serkin recital was a grab bag of intense music featuring the somber likes of Takemitsu, Berio, and Messiaen. The highlight of the afternoon, however, was the Diabelli Variations by Beethoven, concluding a performance that showcased both Serkin’s lyricism and technical finesse.

The first half of the concert was a kaleidoscopic journey through post-war twentieth-century music. Takemitsu’s Far Away, inspired partly by Finnegan’s Wake and partly by a Javanese Gamelan performance, has an eerily Messiaen-like feel to it. The selections from Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Etoiles serve as a paradigm of the composer’s style: primordial, chromatic, and religiously intense. On the whole, these technically challenging pieces were handled with panache, to the point that after each massive chord (and there were many) Serkin would oscillate his wrists and hands when they left the keys, effectively conveying the terrifying sublimity of the works.

The second half of the concert had a distinctly different feel. With a pile of music on the side, a page-turner, and some rather traumatic pieces, the first half felt like an artistic struggle, albeit a successful one. When the lights dimmed for the Diabelli variations, however, the scores were gone, the stand was removed, and there was a general swirl of excitement that often accompanies a performance of a piece of such stature.

To digress a bit, Diabelli was a prominent publisher in the time of Beethoven. In the late 1810s he sent a little waltz he wrote to 50 prominent composers of the day, with the intention that each submit a variation to him for collective publication. Those composers included a youthful Schubert and an even younger Liszt—he was 11 at the time. However, the most famous of them all, Beethoven, initially refused the request. One could surmise that Beethoven, struggling with deafness and mired in musical soul searching, had no interest in such trivial pursuits. But at some point he changed his mind, and instead began a massive project that culminated in the 33 variations on a theme by Diabelli. Written between 1819 and 1823, these variations were in the towering company of the Missa Solemnis, the last of the transcendental sonatas, and the Ninth symphony. Despite the disarmingly simple theme, Beethoven proceeds to weave a work of tremendous complexity, a titanic and yet deeply personal work that rightfully takes its place as his last major composition for piano.

Perhaps because of the reverence that all pianists afford this piece, Serkin sounded a little too serious during the theme. It was rather loud and some of the chords got lost during the upheaval. But by the third variation everything pretty much settled in place. The latent romanticism of the chords emerged ever-so-subtly under the caress of Serkin’s playing. As the performance progressed, the lightness of touch that is so crucial for that ethereal sensation prevalent in late Beethoven bloomed in full. The most pleasing aspect of the performance was the many allusions to the transcendental sonatas elucidated by Serkin. The trills in Variation VI were bursting with the same energy that finally explodes through the fugue of the Hammerklavier. Sections of Variation X, with the ascending chords played out against a low trill, had the same upward thrust as the last variation of Op. 109, and the soft mellow turns of the triplets in Variation XI were executed in a style reminiscent of Variation IV in that same sonata. When the fugal subject in Variation XXXII doubled in octaves, Serkin’s sound projected with a majestic maestoso, bringing all the myriad sentiments of the A flat major fugue of Op. 110 to mind.

But the homage did not stop there. For the encore Serkin chose to play the priceless aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A slow, rather romantic interpretation, flushed with legato, it was a fitting closure to a night devoted to pieces that challenged the strictures of classical music. Indeed, Serkin’s debut album was of the Goldberg Variations, recorded when he was just a teenager. It was touching to see him pay his last homage to that singular, indescribable thema that truly started it all.