Peter Serkin offers a nuanced, idiosyncratic evening at Ravinia

Sat Jun 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Peter Serkin performed Friday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre.

For those of a certain age, Peter Serkin will always be the rebellious prodigy son of pianist Rudolf Serkin. Growing up when his father was one of the stalwarts of 19th-century Romanticism, Serkin initially chose to champion an alternate path by focusing on contemporary music and Bach.

Now 65 and himself now an elder statesman of the piano, Serkin’s repertoire has moved increasingly to that associated with his father over the years. Friday night’s program at Ravinia Festival’s Martin Theatre was more conservative than many past Serkin programs yet nonetheless had its distinctive touches.

Coming on stage wearing a gray pinstripe three-piece suit with a red tie, Serkin situated himself on a raised chair and launched into the Sweelinck Capriccio in A minor, SwWV 281, a work whose authenticity has been challenged in recent years.

Having had a modern Steinway concert grand tuned to “One Seven Comma Modified Meantone” gave the proto-Baroque organ work an added dimension, Serkin carefully unspooling its fugue voices with transparency and careful attention to ornamentation.

It isn’t often you get to hear piano music of Carl Nielsen, particularly on as large a scale as his Theme with Variations, Op. 40, a remarkably forward-looking work from 1917.

Despite its deceptively generic title, this is a work that is relentlessly original. Nielsen uses a conventional chorale of his own as the basis for fifteen exploratory permutations that are harmonically and rhythmically adventurous and whimsically unpredictable while never losing a sense of melancholy.

There are moments where the hyper-chromaticism builds and becomes expansively dreamlike, flirting with atonality before the work returns to small scoldings of convention, if you will, before a cumulative finale that ultimately breaks forth into dynamically-enhanced diatonic confidence.

During some of the almost-Scriabin-like moments of the piece where Serkin had really pushed dynamics, the alternate tuning that had worked so well for the Sweelinck began to become a distraction. Nonetheless, this was the most persuasive and nuanced performance of the evening.

By the time Serkin began playing the Mozart Sonata No. 8 in a minor, K. 310 and indeed for the entire Beethoven second half, it was clear that either the alternate tuning was not working for this later music, or had become inconsistent within itself.

It was also curious that whereas the Sweelinck and the Nielsen had Serkin using music and a page-turner and that there was a certain detachment to those performances, as it were, the Mozart and Beethoven portions which were done sans music with Serkin alone on stage were far more unpredictable and idiosyncratic.

The Mozart was virtually Beethovenesque in its passion and freedom, Serkin so involved with the lyrical middle movement that he began quietly singing along. By the finale, this had extended to heavy breathing and Glenn Gould-style grunting, Serkin watching his hands and actually shaking them when holding sustained downs as if he were attempting vibrato.

The Beethoven Six Bagatelles, Op. 126 was a wonderful scale-down, Serkin bringing the same appropriate sense of proportion and nuance to these miniatures that he had supplied for the more epic pieces of the evening.

After Serkin reemerged to play the Beethoven Sonata No. 26 in E-flat minor, Op. 81a (Les Adieux) and was just about to made hand contact, a loud audience conversation ensued: “He’s just like his father.” “Who?” “Rudolf,” the companion said quite loudly and syllabically. Serkin pulled his hands away and made a valiant attempt to regain his composure.

Once he had, he tossed off the Les Adieux with distinction and determination but seemed not quite back to the top of his game, which thankfully did return for a spirited encore of the compact rondo finale of the Sonata No. 25 in G Major, Op. 79.

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