Bowdoin International Music Festival
Peter Serkin, PIanist
Studzinski Recttal Hall
July 29, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
Pianist Peter Serkin has it all, tight control over a wide range of dynamics, flawless passage work and ornamentation, an ear for inner voices, architectural phrasing, and an unrivaled musical sensitivity, capable of revealing fresh aspects of familiar works and launching new ones.
Why then, was his recital at Studzinski Hall, part of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, strangely lacking in excitement?
Admittedly, it was a hot and somnolent Sunday afternoon, but this is one of the finest pianists of a generation, in a concert that had been sold out for months. Maybe it was Mozart who conjured up the spirit of Morpheus.
Amadeus was never at his best in a minor-key, tragic mode, and Serkin played two of his most lugubrious compositions—the Adagio in B Minor, K. 540 and the Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K 310. (Rachmaninoff used the indication “Lugubre” in his early Piano Trio, played a couple of weeks ago at the festival.)
The realizations of these two works, and the more cheerful Piano Sonata No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 570, brought out voices never heard before, perhaps not even to the composer.
Most of Mozart’s published piano sonatas began life as keyboard improvisations. Unlike the Haydn sonatas, they can be sight-read by any moderately proficient pianist.
Could it be that their appeal lies largely on the surface, that simplicity in their rendering might be a virtue? And skip the repeats as soon as the audience begins to cough.
The most exciting part of the afternoon was its beginning, hearing the Variations, Op. 24, by Oliver Knussen, a British composer who was a close friend of the pianist and wrote the Variations for him. The tragic Mozart works may have been intended as a memorial to Knussen, who died this year.
The variations are indeed “concise,” to the point of making Anton Webern seem long-winded. Indeed, the theme of the variations sounds like half a tone row, and Serkin never loses sight of it through thick and thin, with some virtuoso etudes thrown in. Its six minutes, passed rapidly.
It was also a treat to hear Schumann’s “Waldszenen,” Op. 82, outside the confines of a student piano recital. Serkin made the ephemeral vignettes seem more profound than they are, in particular the “Vogel als Prophet,” in which the bird’s prophecy is a melodic peace and harmony that escaped the composer.
Serkin has an irritating habit of pausing for what seems an eternity with his hands on the keys, before he allows the awe-struck audience to applaud,. It goes with his huge fermatas, which have enough room to recapitulate an entire theme.
But who else would dare to perform one of Bach’s two-part inventions as an encore?
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.