Recent years have seen a true bifurcation in approaches to the solo piano repertoire. On the one hand are the unabashed romantics, who will express themselves at the expense of historical accuracy. These pianists turn every performance into a window into their souls, imbuing musical phrases with a profound sense of personality. On the other side of the split are the technical virtuosos, pianists who attempt to perform the score of a piece in the exact manner it was originally written. Peter Serkin is an interesting blend of these two styles, one of the few famous pianists who bridge the gap between emotion and accuracy. Sadly, his oddly disjointed performance at The Folly Theater was lacking in the sense of personality that has contributed to his fame.
Two traditional chestnuts provided the body of the evening’s recital. The first, Mozart’s Sonata, K. 332, is one of the most ebullient and carefree works ever written for solo piano. Serkin’s reading of the piece was sugary and light, with only a slight undercurrent of introspection filtering through his playing. This managed to make the piece feel rather soulless, like a beautiful confection with little substance on the inside. Although the joyous finale was a prodigious display of his technical virtuosity, Serkin’s reputation as a thoughtful interpreter of classic gems was undermined by his overall performance.
The reading of Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat major, Op. 81a was slightly more heartfelt, but still disappointing. The first movement, in which Beethoven laments the departure of his patron from Vienna, is typically a stirring display of depression and angst. However, Serkin’s rendition, which emphasized dominant chords, lacked the delicate touch with which the work is typically played. The last two movements were more enjoyable, with Serkin veering, along with the score, from wistful remembrance to joyful elation.
The first half of the program was extremely modernistic in composition, providing a wonderful showcase for Serkin’s blend of emotion and technical proficiency. A set of three baroque style pieces by the nearly forgotten composer Stephan Wolpe was almost painful in its intensity. The last of the pieces, a stunningly dissonant fugue, was difficult enough to bring a healthy sweat to Serkin’s forehead.
Similarly impressive was the pianist’s reading of Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25. One of the first pieces Schoenberg wrote in the 12-tone idiom, this Suite is a set of abrasive, almost sadistic miniatures. Serkin gave a lucid, coherent performance of this somewhat hallucinatory piece, providing a grounding force to the music’s disorienting turns between sprightly grace and forceful dominance.
The most enjoyable piece of the evening was a late addition to the program, Stravinsky’s Sonata. A perfect showcase for Serkin’s talent, the piece is a prime example of the composer’s ability to balance the structures of the past with a chromatic melodicism more typical of 20th century works. The first movement, in which a graceful and lilting melody is contrasted with martial, pulsating chords was truly impressive, as was the sonorous intensity Serkin brought to the piece’s final movement. It was unfortunate that most of the other pieces did not elicit similarly heartfelt performances from Serkin’s able hands.