BBC Legends – Rudolf Serkin

0 of 5 stars

Prelude in E minor and Fugue in E, Op.35/1
Klavierstücke, Op.119
33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op.120

Rudolf Serkin (piano)

Recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, London – Mendelssohn and Brahms on 3 February 1975, Beethoven on 25 April 1969

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: June 2007
BBCL 4211-2
Duration: 79 minutes

Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) was an exceptional artist. Yet if you were to ask many people to list the great post-war pianists, he might well not get a mention. For the non-concert-going music-lover, he is known for his pre-war discs with Adolf Busch, his 50s and 60s concerto discs with Bernstein, Ormandy and Szell and, then, some digital recordings of Mozart and Beethoven concertos with Abbado and Ozawa. Unlike many big-name pianists, he was a great chamber-music player and he also recorded with the likes of Casals, Rostropovich and the Budapest Quartet. He was also a dedicated teacher and eventually became Director of the Curtis Institute and a leading light at the Marlboro Festival. His image was uncompromising, almost ascetic, being tall, gaunt and little interested in image.

Much the same could be said of Serkin’s playing. There is no sense of sound for its own sake, no gratuitous search for beauty, or irrelevant virtuosity. This release certainly shows all of these qualities: there is a stark directness of expression that can be almost intimidating! The Mendelssohn Prelude is magnificent. The tone glows, pedal control is absolute and rubato is sinuous. In the Fugue the tempo is spot-on and there is a sense of structure and line. However I have Serkin live in 1963 in this work, on a pirate CD and, there, the fingerwork is crisper and the rhythmic control stronger. These technical problems recur in the Brahms, replete with wrong notes, but this is a small price to pay for such beautifully restrained phrasing and clarity of expression, that make these Pieces sound youthfully fresh – no mean feat in late Brahms!

Serkin was one of the greatest of Beethoven pianists and here, in the greatest set of Variations ever written, he demonstrates why. In Variation VI the sense of struggle is palpable, while in IX the sound and rhythm are wonderfully ugly. Number XIV sways insouciantly and there is a true sense of dance in the next Variation. The control of dynamics, touch and tone in XVII is absolute and the attack in the following Variation alarming. All of the slower sections produce searching, yet questioning, intensity. Indeed every Variation is brought vividly to life. Serkin’s intellect, command and that rare quality, spirituality, shine through. Beethoven playing really doesn’t come any better than this.

Sound-wise everything is fine; indeed the balance, tone and sense of acoustic are exceptional. The re-mastering engineer, Tony Faulkner, has resisted any temptation to move the image forward, or to try and eliminate the slight background hiss (which would have contaminated timbres). Those responsible for the original BBC broadcast knew rather more than their modern counterparts about recording the piano. Although, to be fair, they were using analogue sound, which is far superior to digital.

This is an essential purchase for all lovers of the art of interpretation, an ideal way to extend one’s knowledge of a sadly neglected pianist and, as an added bonus, hear true piano sound.

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