Peter Serkin at Zankel Hall

Klavierstücke, Op.11
Six épigraphes antiques
Játékok [Selection]
Polonaise in C minor, Op.40/2
Impromptu in A flat, Op.29
Trois nouvelles études – Étude in A flat
Nocturne in E, Op.62/2
Suite für Piano, Op.25

Peter Serkin (piano)

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 10 December, 2009
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

Peter SerkinPeter Serkin, an artist who deserves a far wider audience, lived up to his reputation for assembling programs of provocative and challenging works.

Two Schoenberg works acted as bookends. Drei Klavierstücke is one of Schoenberg’s most radical works – if a bit too much tonality-free German expressionism – yet Serkin gave the work a penetrating performance which enhanced the fragmentation and timbral variety within each movement; by comparison, Suite für Piano, which concluded the recital, sounded almost old-fashioned by comparison as Serkin emphasized the music’s neo-Baroque nature, bringing a backward-glancing, traditional feel to the three dance-based movements (‘Gavotte’, ‘Minuet’ and ‘Gigue’).

Serkin’s striking performance of Debussy’s epigraphs makes one wonder why this solo version of the work is not performed more regularly. The work is an elaboration of “Chansons de Bilitis”, with much new material in the final two that bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeux – and seems to point the way to the early piano music of Messiaen. Serkin did not downplay the stylistic shifts in the work, bringing an air of Romantic exoticism in particular to the pentatonic-based music and not shying away from the striking colors of the last two movements.

The brief movements Serkin selected from Kurtág’s Játékok had little in common with each other besides their brevity, and provided a tiny but well-gauged taste of the huge collection of very concise studies. Kurtág has consciously imitated a number of styles, particularly those of 20th-century Hungarian composers from Léo Weiner to György Ligeti, to many of Kurtág’s living contemporaries in works whose titles often name or allude to art, music, and creative figures.

Charles Wuorinen is one of the last people one might imagine writing a pianistic tour-de-force – but that aptly describes his Scherzo, a demanding fourteen-minute movement that successfully manages to remain captivating while sacrificing nothing in terms of Wuorinen’s dense, complex style. The work brought out Serkin’s most extrovert playing – and the loudest ovation – of the evening.

Following the intermission came four works by Chopin that are not frequently programmed. Serkin convincingly conveyed a common thread running through the selections: daring harmony and melody that was surprisingly forward-looking, and music that was sometimes at the periphery of the ‘form’ chosen for the work.

Serkin was recalled for encores following the final Schoenberg piece, bringing hints of Schubert to the Bach Prelude in B flat, gentle momentum and amazing evenness to the immensely challenging ‘Butterfly’ Etude of Chopin, and pleasant calm to the Chopin F sharp Nocturne.

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