Classical music review: Peter Serkin distinctive at the Perelman

Peter Serkin was eccentric, otherworldly, and unexpected Wednesday in works by Beethoven, Charles Wuorinen, and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.
Peter Serkin was eccentric, otherworldly, and unexpected Wednesday in works by Beethoven, Charles Wuorinen, and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. (KATHY CHAPMAN)
Posted: January 25, 2014

You've never met anyone quite like Peter Serkin before. In his three-piece suit with white pocket square, he was a natty presence on the Perelman Theater stage Wednesday night. It was the playing that was rumpled.

Not always. There were many moments of incredible polish, especially when it came to the pianist's approach to sound. He has that ability to conjure an instantly rounded tone without doing any violence to the start of the note. But all over - in Beethoven no less than in a contemporary score - Serkin, 66, occupied the space somewhere between an eccentric and outsider.

For this, we should be grateful. Any number of other pianists hosted by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society convey being part of a performance tradition with incredible technique at their disposal. Serkin, though, was otherworldly, which, of course, is the essence of this Beethoven. I found it easy to tolerate the coarse octave strikes he brought to the first movement of the miraculous Sonata in E Flat Major ("Les Adieux"), because of the disorientation Serkin heightened in the fragmented development of the main theme. This is Beethoven questioning business as usual, and Serkin answered with equal provocation. Playing it slowly accentuated just how strange some corners of this piece are - the stuttered thematic treatment, the disquietingly sudden changes in direction, contrasted with the serenely descending repeated opening intervals.

Technique arrived uneasily in the third movement, which only sent the oddly scintillating dramatic message that anything could happen at any point.

The program itself was unexpected. Two soulful and unusual works opened: the Capriccio in A Minor by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, a Dutch master (and, incredibly, pre-Bach), and Nielsen's sprawling Opus 40 Theme and Variations. Serkin underlined Sweelinck's organ lineage and sense of struggle in a work forever laboring up or down in half steps. The pianist's expressiveness in the highly variable Nielsen was a series of fully formed visits to starkly different emotional landscapes.

Charles Wuorinen's 2007 Scherzo made you hope Serkin was getting paid by the note. Rabidly atonal, prone to slipping across the keyboard, its expressive intentions were left unclear. It did not fare well next to Beethoven's Opus 126 Six Bagatelles, which arrived, even now, like pure innovation. Serkin's view of the music was intensely personal.

But why this encore choice? After all that flying in the face of convention, the third movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 25 in G (Op. 79) seemed a simpleton.


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