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.