Stefan Wolpe: Passacaglia
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 30; Diabelli Variations
Peter Serkin (piano)
As research for another of this week’s concerts, I recently pulled all of my recordings of Quartet for the End of Time from their shelves and was struck by the photos of one of the groups of performers. Tashi released their version of the Messiaen masterpiece in 1976 and their marketing campaign of the time, being inspired by the much more lucrative rock music arena, featured a psychedelic fold out album with no less than two San Francisco style portraits (I also have a recording from the same era featuring excerpts from the Utah Symphony entitled “Mahler is Heavy”). What strikes one about the dated images is that only one of the four participants seems naturally comfortable in his counterculture outfit. Fred Sherry and Ida Kavafian (now both management types at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center) appear to be normal, straight arrow grad students while Richard Stoltzman may be dressed in Tibetan robes, but his general appearance still reeks of conformity. Only the driving force behind the project, pianist Peter Serkin, can honestly boast of the trappings of rebellion, his hirsuteness giving new meaning to the term “longhair music”. Not surprisingly, with the benefit of historical perspective, it appears to be Mr. Serkin who has traveled the most individual of paths.
His thoroughbred lineage is exceptionally impressive. Grandfather Adolf Busch was one of the greatest of intellectual musicians in the first half of the previous century. Amazingly prolific, Busch gave over 250 concerts per year as a violinist in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, composed a large body of work, and established his integrity on an international scale when he became the first major non-Jewish musician to publicly leave and denounce Hitler’s Germany. Emigrating to America, he founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival. Peter’s great uncles were the conductor Fritz Busch, the guiding hand of Glyndebourne, and cellist Hermann Busch, a founding member of both the famed Busch Trios and Quartets.
Mr. Serkin’s father was, of course, the eminent pianist and scholar Rudolf Serkin. I had the pleasure of hearing Serkin senior perform live and can still remember the feeling that this was as close as I would ever get to hearing a performance the way that the composer had originally conceived of the work, so confident and detailed was his approach to music-making. Not only was his technique both solid and relaxed, those long fingers so straight and independent, but his mind was uniquely able to translate its thoughts into audible dexterous communication. Serkin was cerebral but not openly severe and was, in fact, the epitome of convivial ensemble play, not only a longtime member of the aforementioned Busch Trio, but the heir to and prime mover of the Marlboro egalitarian tradition. Those who experienced those Vermont summers always wax poetic about his humanity.
However, representing the third generation may mean a little more baggage than one can easily handle. Sonia Horowitz, daughter of Vladimir and granddaughter of Toscanini, either committed suicide or at least engineered her life to end on a collision course and living up to a name may simply be beyond the emotional scope of a sensitive artist (cf. the cases of Homer Shakespeare Pound or Paul Wittgenstein). I have never heard Serkin junior unburden himself on this issue, but I did listen closely when John Rubinstein talked openly about what it was like to be the son of a pianistic legend. Some of the rumors about Peter Serkin’s rocky road to maturity appear to have some credibility within this filial context. I have heard him perform at a level the equal of his father (high praise indeed), but I have also experienced evenings of less than total concentration and even aphasia.
Variations was the theme of this recital. I must confess to not appreciating very much of the Wolpe, a set of intersecting tone rows fit more for the graph than the staff, but there is no denying the fervent commitment of the pianist to this Bernoulli box of musical flotsam. Serkin did infuse the seemingly random (in the poetical, if not the mathematical sense) fragments with a high degree of Romantic phrasemaking, even if the result still left this reviewer cold. The first of the last Beethoven sonatas was lovingly presented, the narrative skills of the performer akin to those of a fine actor, the final slow variations perused in sublime tranquility.
The Diabellis are an extremely difficult set to pull off. Spinning so much gold from straw, the composer expects his interpreter to portray a wide range of styles and characters and to do so without any time for costume or scene changes (even in the more technically challenging Paganini Variations of Brahms, there is a built-in break). Further, the weight of 175 years of scholarship sits alongside of the performer on the piano bench. How does one present the opening theme? Is it simply dross, ripe for Beethovenian buffoonery, a pretty little dance tune with permutative possibilities, or a great theme in embryonic form? Certainly there are high spirits evident in some of the variations; is the original material a foreshadowing? Ultimately, a kaleidoscopic sense of showmanship is necessary to propel this magnificent work.
Serkin set the tone for his version by treating this main subject with a great deal of respect, unapologetically and nobly offering it up warts and all. His traversal of this mighty diorama was blissfully unhurried, and the grandeur of the architecture began to emerge as the overwhelming outcome of his expedition. Reflective and energetic by turns, this rendition was notable for its logic and proportion, classical with both an upper and a lower case “c”. One felt privileged to accompany this steady, expert guide on such a scholarly archaeological dig. After receiving a warm ovation from the crowd, Serkin put his personal punctuation mark on the evening by choosing the air from the Goldbergs as his encore, introducing, if you will, another grandfather into the proceedings. Here, he seemed to be saying, are the headwaters of all of this grand music. Adolf Busch would have been proud.
Frederick L. Kirshnit