Notes and Editorial Reviews
Capriccio in E,
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J. S. Bach
Sonatas: No. 24 in f?. Sonata No. 21 in C,
Rudolf Serkin (pn)
BBCL 4177 (77:46) Live: London 6/4/1973
This disc is
Rudolf Serkin. Piano mavens will hate it; music-lovers will be moved beyond all reason. It includes wrong notes, smudged chords, blurred runs, and Serkin?s incessant humming, yet it is constantly fascinating and, in the end, emotionally draining. At 70, the great musician?s faults and virtues were honed almost to caricature. One couldn?t write about any of these four performances without repeating those contradictions, so take them as a given.
The disc provides a reminder that Serkin disliked making recordings because he hated to commit to a single interpretation; every performance was meant to be unique, a continuing exploration of the music. He once suggested to Goddard Lieberson, in all seriousness, that Columbia record him playing the same piece several times, and issue them all. Yet his reaction to almost every take was: ?Don?t bother to edit it; I can do better than that.? I got to know most of his Columbia recordings, but for some reason I never followed his live performance discs. Although I heard him perform many times half a century ago, this disc comes as a revelation: like Richter, he is freer, more musical when the microphone is not turned on, or in this case when he didn?t know it was on. The two LPs from his December 14, 1977, concert at Carnegie Hall don?t count; he knew the microphones were listening too?and he played a patch session the following day.
The notes to this disc say that Serkin played Bach?s Capriccio in E twice in Carnegie Hall and recorded it in 1957, but all three were of the better known Capriccio in B?, BWV 992, ?on the Departure of His Beloved Brother.? BWV 993 is new to the pianist?s discography; he obviously thought more of it than did Karl Geiringer, who called it ?rather insignificant.? Serkin often took some time to warm up in a recital; the playing here is calm, cautious, and a touch awkward. The piece is a series of small fantasias and fugues, and its lack of continuity tells: each time Serkin pulls it all together, a different section begins.
On the other hand, the Reger
(a staple of his repertoire) goes magnificently; Serkin?s technique is far more secure than in his CBS recording of 11 years later. While the notes may not ring out with the clarity of some younger virtuosos, they are all here, even in the giant fugue. The gravitas and nobility of this performance are unparalleled in my experience, as a master finds music where no one else can. The audience?s lukewarm response indicates how little Reger was understood at the time; probably few of them had ever heard these
Serkin was able to make more of Beethoven?s little op. 78 Sonata than most pianists, as can be heard in his 1947 and 1973 recordings. Despite this recital taking place between two 1973 sessions, his playing here is inconsistent, as if he were still working out new ideas from one moment to the next?perhaps that is why he went back into the studio two weeks after this recital. But of course he knew far better than I, and the result is totally compelling, Beethoven laid bare before us.
Serkin seems more comfortable in the ?Waldstein,? long a favorite. For the 1937?38 season, he offered five alternate programs, each containing a Beethoven sonata. One was the ?Hammerklavier,? another op. 101, and the other three the ?Waldstein? (Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber:
Rudolf Serkin: A Life
). I believe he rejected later recordings because his first, from 1952, was so perfect (he did reject the 1975 one, which was issued by Sony only after his death, with permission from his widow Irene and son Peter). He is by now totally into the swing of this recital, and he just lets fly; there are a few imperfections, but the Allegro con brio is riveting. A member of the Philharmonia Orchestra once said of Klemperer: ?it is as if Beethoven himself were standing there.? So it is here. Serkin begins the final Rondo with a cool serenity and builds to astonishing intensity. Throughout the movement, he is less militant than in 1952, playing freer with Beethoven?s dynamic markings and finding new ways of expression. One cannot speak of quality or consistency here; one just hangs on for the ride?the notes would be produced more cleanly in 1975, but that Rondo sounds square by comparison. As Serkin wished, we can now hear three very different performances of the Sonata. The closing Prestissimo tumbles out with most of the notes in place, if not quite at the speed of two decades earlier or the clarity of two years later. Whatever you may think of it, you have never heard a ?Waldstein? quite like this.
The recorded sound is warm and reverberant, surprising for both Royal Festival Hall and for Serkin, whose tone I remember as being clean and dry. If you care about Beethoven more than you do about the piano, don?t miss this one.
FANFARE: James H. North
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