Last season Peter Serkin, most intrepid and interesting of all American
pianists, embarked on a truly brave mission. He commissioned short new works
from a dozen major composers around the world, and toured the country with a
program consisting of these works and nothing more. He gave the program at
Royce Hall in December, 1989, and was cheered by an equally intrepid audience.
For this year’s tour Serkin has culled three works from that program, and
worked them in around other music by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin. This
was his recital offering on Tuesday night at the Music Center, and again the
audience stayed to cheer. The motivations behind the concert were exactly
right; deserving new works should be allowed to stand beside standard repertory
composers, not quarantined in all-contemporary concerts.
Two of the three new works were indeed, if memory serves, the best of the
bunch: Oliver Knussen’s tough, gritty Variations, Opus 24, and Alexander
Goehr’s “…in real time,” full of charm and wit that outweigh the dense
numerological plan attached to the work by the composer. The third, Peter
Lieberson’s Debussy-derived “Breeze of Delight,” seemed unsubstantial by
Setting the new music in a sort of context, Serkin chose some out-of-the-way
works by familiar composers: three of the organ Chorale-Preludes, transcribed
for piano, that were to be Johannes Brahms’ last work; the Opus 126 Bagatelles
of Beethoven; the F-major Piano Sonata that Mozart cobbled together from two
movements composed here and a rondo from there; the garrulous, little-known
Bolero of Chopin (with two Chopin Etudes and a Mazurka as encores).
Enterprising program-building this, although that’s not the saying that
everything worked. Neither the woolly Brahms pieces nor the jagged, unruly
Beethoven pieces challenged the best in the pianist; the Beethoven in
particular seemed rather tame in relationship to its fund of wildness.
The Mozart, on the other hand, was the evening’s real triumph. The work is
seldom played; perhaps its dual origin arouses suspicion. It is actually very
much of a piece, three strong and well-planned movements, each a different kind
of venture. into serious counterpoint. Mozart at the time was in the process
of discovering and devouring the music of J. S. Bach, and this deep, powerful
music, with its ravishing slow movement and its strange experiments in piano
sonority at the end, makes that clear. Trust Peter Serkin to make his every
visit here a voyage of discovery.