Peter Serkin: On Memory and the Pleasures of Counterpoint
By Jeremy Eichler
From the New York Times - May 9, 2006
The American composer Elliott Carter is about as old as modern music itself. He was born in December 1908, the same month that Schoenberg began his siege on tonality with the premiere of his Second String Quartet. Mahler would soon compose his Ninth Symphony. Charles Ives, at that point an unknown composer, later wrote Mr. Carter's recommendation for college.
And there he was on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, 97, standing to receive applause after the New York premiere of "Intermittences." Written last year for the pianist Peter Serkin, who performed it in his solo recital, the piece has more vim and vitality than plenty of music by composers a third of Mr. Carter's age.
"Intermittences" takes its title from a famous passage in Proust, in which the narrator is stunned by a sudden upwelling of memory that forces him to confront the earlier death of his grandmother. The scene dissolves into an exquisite meditation on, among other things, the ability of certain visceral memories to connect us with earlier versions of our inner selves.
You can only guess at Mr. Carter's thicket of memories, but this taut, brittle nine-minute piece certainly captures the intensity of Proustian recollection. Hazy, dissonant chords are punctured by fierce squalls of scattered notes; the pedals help produce haunting billows of resonance. Mr. Serkin's approach was laser-focused, favoring incisive attacks and sharp releases, as if the keyboard were scalding to the touch.
"Intermittences" was just one highlight of an enjoyably cerebral program, loosely organized around the theme of counterpoint as practiced by composers spanning six centuries. Brief works by Josquin, John Bull, John Dowland and William Byrd were juxtaposed with Bach's Chorale Prelude "Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten" (BWV 691) and his Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903), as well as Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata.
In case there wasn't enough to ponder in this repertory, Mr. Serkin also experimented with his piano tuning, using a special 18th-century mean-tone temperament designed to bring out the color properties of specific keys. It had a modest but noticeable sharpening effect; familiar shades took on odd and interesting tints.
The impact was only amplified by Mr. Serkin's probing interpretations, especially of the late Beethoven sonata. Mr. Serkin clearly grasps this music in three dimensions, bringing out inner voices and rhythmic figures that many interpreters leave burbling in the background.
Nor was there any attempt to tame the work or soften its radical edges with an imported Romantic sentimentalism. The final two movements were brilliantly and beautifully strange: lines floating untethered in space, silences long and deep.
Serkin certainly knows how to mix, match composers
By Wynne Delacoma
From the Chicago Sun-Times - May 9, 2006
Peter Serkin isn't one of those pianists who turns up regularly on Symphony Center's solo piano series. So when a chance presents itself to hear this cerebral yet always communicative artist in the spotlight on his own, music lovers turn out in force. The large crowd gathered for Serkin's solo recital Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center heard an intriguingly eclectic program that was well worth the wait.
Beethoven's formidable "Hammerklavier'' Sonata was the recital's marquee draw, but the pre-intermission repertoire revealed much about how Serkin approaches programming. There was Charles Wuorinen's 1988 arrangement of "Ave Christe, immolate in cruces ara,'' a 500-year-old motet by French Renaissance composer Josquin Des Prez. Three short works from 16th and 17th century England followed: William Byrd's arrangement of John Dowland's "Pavana lachrymae,'' Byrd's own "La volta'' and John Bull's "Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la.'' After the unpredictable eruptions of Elliott Carter's "Intermittences,'' the concert's first half closed with a Bach chorale prelude, "Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten,'' and his D Minor Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903.
Des Prez, Byrd and Bull might seem like strange bedfellows for Beethoven, but by the end of the concert, the audacious logic of Serkin's choices emerged. In the "Hammerklavier,'' whether in its ferociously turbulent moments or the slow-paced, transcendent glow of its adagio, Beethoven pushes boundaries on all levels. In the final movement, Serkin repeatedly raced through dizzying chordal runs at blinding speed, then shifted to zones of zenlike serenity. Everything was stretched to the brink, yet his grip on the music's underlying structure was sure and strong.
Looking back, it was clear that the composers on the first half of Serkin's recital were pushing boundaries in their own ways. Wuorinen focused a bright but utterly clear light on Des Prez's introspective "Ave Christe,'' allowing its simple lines to emerge in an unhurried, unadorned melodic arc. Bull's experiments with different colors of the scale in "Ut, re, me'' flirted with restless harmonies, and Byrd's two settings mixed elegance with occasional dissonant splashes. In the mercurial Carter piece, which was written for Serkin last year, and the improvisatory wildness of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy, the pianist offered a preview of the passion he would unleash again in the "Hammerklavier.''
After such musical turmoil, it was somehow fitting that Serkin's encore was Beethoven's Bagatelle, Op. 119, No. 11, a simple musical morsel as gentle as a lullaby.
The master and the maverick
Serkin boldly reinvents piano recital in his image
By John von Rhein
From Metromix.com (Chicago Tribune) - May 7, 2006
How many other musicians do you know who can transform a Steinway grand piano into, by turns, a Renaissance church choir, an early English virginal, a German Baroque organ and, for both Elliott Carter and Beethoven, a big percussion instrument with mighty hammers? Only a pianist blessed with Peter Serkin's formidable technique, incisive mind and maverick spirit would have dared to pack so many different kinds and styles of music into a single program and make them seem to belong together. His concert Sunday at Orchestra Hall did nothing less than reinvent the piano recital as we know it. A few listeners were mystified, but most of us delighted to behold one of America's great pianists doing what he's best at: thinking outside the staid classical performance tradition. Serkin went so far as to have the Steinway tuned to an old German mean-tone temperament—so much the better to bring out the specific color and character of J.S. Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue" and Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata, which benefited the most from this retuning. Otherwise, the differences were so subtle that most audience members wouldn't have noticed if the pianist hadn't tipped his hand in the program book.The hourlong first half surrounded Carter's "Intermittences" (2005) with transcriptions of Renaissance pieces (Josquin Des Prez, John Bull, John Dowland and William Byrd), and, on the other side, the Bach "Chromatic Fantasy" and a Bach organ chorale prelude.The Carter, with its splintery flurries of notes, sharp decaying dissonances, rapidly shifting speeds and pungent silences, clearly enjoyed the company it kept. Serkin, for whom the piece was written, set its delicate filigree against the sober gravitas of the early music and in so doing made us hear it with senses heightened.Incredibly demanding for pianists and listeners alike, the Beethoven sonata is not a piece for just any pianist to play to just any audience. Serkin's legendary father Rudolf made it one of his specialties. It's to the credit of Serkin fils that his boldly argued reading was entirely his own, both deeply involved and deeply involving. He didn't make any of it sound particularly easy to play, but, then, performers aren't supposed to: Struggle is built into this late Beethoven colossus.Not for a long while has any pianist delivered the slow movement with such rapt serenity and so perfect a balance of musical weight and expressivity—it was as if we were experiencing Beethoven's inner world without an intermediary. Serkin wrestled manfully with the long, rigorous, three-voice fugue that concludes the sonata. He was more than a match for this grandly rhetorical finale, building tremendous tension and excitement as he attacked Beethoven's pounding accents, wild leaps and fierce discords. His commanding statement left the audience in a state of shock and awe, happily so.
Serkin disappoints with Carter premiere, Bach and Beethoven
By C.J. Gianakaris
From Mlive.com (Kalamazoo Gazette) - Thursday, May 4, 2006
Pianist Peter Serkin started with an intriguing approach to his Gilmore Festival concert Wednesday night at Chenery Auditorium.
A high point was his performance of the world premiere of Elliott Carter's ``Intermittences'' (2005), commissioned by the Gilmore Festival and Carnegie Hall.
To open, Serkin chose works from the 15th and 16th centuries for aesthetic comparison to the new Carter piece. The pieces were by Frenchman Josquin Desprez (1440-1521) and by three English composers who lived during Shakespeare's time -- John Bull, John Dowland and William Byrd. Byrd's dance ``La Volta'' lent liveliness to an otherwise subdued opening set.
Carter has earned nearly all America's accolades for composing, and ``Intermittences'' was eagerly anticipated. In Serkin's performance, the Carter piece did contrast with the calm, fine-gauged earlier works. But the insistent dissonances, atonality and jagged outbursts won few friends at Chenery.
Serkin played energetically and accurately. Yet clogged chords, random ``ping'' notes (not quite staccatos) and illogical silent beats resulted in a serious lack of coherence.
Matters did not improve appreciably with J. S. Bach's Chorale ``Wer nur den Lieben Gott lasst walten'' (BWV 691) and ``Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor'' (BWV 903).
A pervasive introspective approach to Bach desiccated both works, though the final fugue was played smoothly and effectively. Here, Serkin was distinctive if not distinguished.
But clearly it was not Serkin's night. The final work was the gargantuan Sonata in B flat major (Op. 106), ``Hammerklavier,'' which Beethoven composed in 1818 after deafness had descended upon him. All Beethoven's late works express introspective thoughts that tempt a pianist to rummage in abstract emotions. Yet Beethoven the man and the artist needs to be released through his music, not further buried.
Serkin's response was mannerism that diverted his ultimate intentions. He impressed early with staggered octave runs and clean singing lines in the treble. But occasional ragged playing (scores were used throughout the concert) intruded, while exaggerated contrasts in dynamics and tempos blurred delicate details.
The Scherzo displayed playfulness and a lack of neuroticism. However, the bottom fell out with Adagio sostenuto. The score does display plentiful pianos and pianissimos, but by lowering the dynamics yet another level, Serkin could not connect with many in the audience or sustain melody. Brilliant passage work by Serkin was outweighed by inaudible triple pianos that precluded energy flow.
Off-nights happen to all artists. Audiences here have heard this pianist in better fettle previously and will again.
Most ironic element
New York City has to play catch-up to the Gilmore Festival. Peter Serkin is to perform this identical program Friday night at Carnegie Hall, and Leif Ove Andsnes is to take the stage Saturday at Carnegie's Zankel Hall to play the same Beethoven sonata he performed here last week.