A long-awaited so­journ Pi­anist Pe­ter Serkin


In be­com­ing mind­ful of the many as­pects of play­ing to­gether with an­other pi­anist, one then comes back to play­ing by one­self with a some­what new, more pre­cise, and more flex­i­ble per­spec­tive. — Pe­ter Serkin

world-renowned pi­anist Pe­ter Serkin is no stranger to Santa Fe. Around 1980, he vis­ited the city dur­ing a cross-coun­try road trip with his el­dest daugh­ter, and in 1999 he per­formed here in a solo recital. This week, how­ever, he set­tles in for his long­est stay yet, when he makes his de­but with the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val as artist-in-res­i­dence.

“[Artis­tic Di­rec­tor] Marc Neikrug and I have been friendly for a very long time, and I have long re­spected his mu­si­cian­ship as com­poser and pi­anist, but when in­vited to the fes­ti­val in the past, I had al­ways de­clined be­cause, while my chil­dren were younger, I wanted to be with them as much and as con­tin­u­ously as pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially dur­ing the sum­mers,” Serkin told Pasatiempo. Now, with his five chil­dren grown, Serkin joins the fes­ti­val for its 44th sea­son, and be­tween Sunday, Aug. 14 and Mon­day, Aug. 22, he ap­pears in five cham­ber mu­sic con­certs and one recital, per­form­ing works that span the 16th to the 20th cen­turies.

Cham­ber mu­sic has been a long-stand­ing part of Serkin’s ro­bust reper­toire, which he’s cul­ti­vated over the course of a nearly 60-year-long ca­reer. Serkin made his pro­fes­sional de­but in 1959, at the age of twelve, at the Marl­boro Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in Ver­mont, which was founded by leg­endary mu­si­cians in his own fam­ily: his fa­ther, pi­anist Ru­dolf Serkin, and his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, vi­olin­ist Adolf Busch. This aus­pi­cious de­but quickly led to solo en­gage­ments with the world’s lead­ing or­ches­tras, and in 1966, at the age of nine­teen, he earned his first Grammy Award. Serkin also fa­mously re­tired from per­form­ing in 1968, and in late 1971, he moved with his fam­ily to Mex­ico. He re­turned to his pro­fes­sion eight months later, how­ever, af­ter hear­ing Bach be­ing played on the ra­dio in a neigh­bor’s house. “The ex­pe­ri­ence I had in Mex­ico of hear­ing Bach’s mu­sic un­ex­pect­edly was a pow­er­ful in­spi­ra­tion for me to get back to play­ing his mu­sic and to play­ing all sorts of great mu­sic,” Serkin said.

For Serkin, much of that great mu­sic lies within the cham­ber mu­sic reper­toire. “Hav­ing played cham­ber mu­sic all my life, I ac­tu­ally re­gard it as not so very dif­fer­ent from play­ing solo, or from play­ing with an or­ches­tra,” Serkin said. “It is of­ten well-served when played in a rather solois­tic man­ner by each in­di­vid­ual player in a group, bring­ing things out boldly and with real pres­ence.”

Serkin brings that bold­ness to the first pro­gram of his res­i­dency on Aug. 14, when he joins forces with one of his fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tors, the Orion String Quar­tet, for a per­for­mance of Schoen­berg’s Cham­ber Sym­phony No. 1 in E ma­jor, ar­ranged for pi­ano and string quar­tet by An­ton We­bern, a pro­tégé of the com­poser. Serkin de­scribed this work as “a most beau­ti­ful and ex­cit­ing mas­ter­piece orig­i­nally writ­ten for a large cham­ber en­sem­ble of strings and winds”; Schoen­berg also ar­ranged the work for large or­ches­tra and for pi­ano four-hands. While Sunday’s per­for­mance ad­heres pri­mar­ily to We­bern’s ar­range­ment, it re­flects what Serkin de­scribed as his own “ad­just­ments in We­bern’s score, par­tic­u­larly in its pi­ano part,” which he made years ago while per­form­ing in Tashi, an ac­claimed, in­no­va­tive quar­tet he co­founded in 1973.

“These changes of mine,” Serkin said, “were al­most all based very much on how Schoen­berg wrote for pi­ano in his own four-hands ar­range­ment. Schoen­berg’s pi­ano writ­ing,” he added, “was gen­er­ally less sparse than We­bern’s — richer, more like Brahms’ some­how, with oc­tave cou­plings and all kinds of dif­fer­ences in de­tails. But mostly this is We­bern’s ar­range­ment still, with some changes made by me, dis­creetly and re­spect­fully.”

Serkin’s next ap­pear­ance is in a solo recital on Tues­day, Aug. 16, which, he said, “un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally” for him, “has no con­tem­po­rary mu­sic on it. The clos­est to that,” he noted, “is Charles Wuori­nen’s set­ting for pi­ano of a motet writ­ten in the 15th cen­tury by Josquin [des Prez].” Other pieces on the pro­gram in­clude “the

deeply mov­ing Pa­vana Lachry­mae by John Dow­land, set for key­board by William Byrd from its orig­i­nal lute ver­sion, as well as Bryd’s own joy­ous

La Volta.” These works, in ad­di­tion to “a chro­matic fan­ta­sia by Sweel­inck” and two pieces by John Bull — “a brief gigue” and “a bold work in which a can­tus fir­mus [fixed song] un­folds in all twelve keys” — weren’t writ­ten “with a modern pi­ano in mind, since it hadn’t even been imag­ined yet,” Serkin said. “But these works can still be played on a pi­ano in a com­pelling way. It is all won­der­ful mu­sic that we only get to hear too rarely.”

Tues­day’s recital also fea­tures three pieces by Max Reger, “in honor of the cen­te­nary of Reger’s death,” as well as Beethoven’s Sonata in E ma­jor, Op. 109 — a “great work,” Serkin said, that “Brahms also ended some of his solo recitals with.”

On Thurs­day, Aug. 18, Serkin part­ners with vi­olin­ist Ida Kavafian, one of his col­leagues from Tashi, for a per­for­mance of Schu­mann’s Sonata in D mi­nor for vi­o­lin and pi­ano. Serkin’s fol­low­ing two pro­grams fea­ture works that are ar­guably cen­ter­pieces of his ap­pear­ance at the fes­ti­val.

“The pro­grams for this res­i­dency be­gan with the in­ten­tion to play with my re­cent duo-pi­ano part­ner, Ju­lia Hsu, a mar­velous pi­anist,” Serkin said. Ac­cord­ingly, on Saturday, Aug. 20, he and Hsu per­form J. S. Bach’s Con­certo in C ma­jor for two pi­anos, strings, and con­tinuo. On the fol­low­ing evening, they per­form Fer­ruc­cio Bu­soni’s two-pi­ano ar­range­ment of his own Fan­ta­sia Con­trap­pun­tis­tica, “an au­da­cious work,” Serkin said, “built around, and elab­o­rat­ing on, Bach’s Art of Fugue. This is a piece,” he added, “that I had played with Richard Goode years ago, on which we were coached by my fa­ther, who well-re­mem­bered hear­ing Bu­soni and Egon Petri per­form it in London.”

Al­though Serkin has played works for two pi­anos and pi­ano four-hands in the past, it wasn’t un­til he part­nered with Hsu that he was “able to re­ally de­vote much at­ten­tion to proper work on this reper­toire,” he said.

“One of my per­sonal pi­ano teach­ers was Karl Ul­rich Schn­abel, who con­cen­trated very much on the great four-hand lit­er­a­ture, which he stressed should be pre­pared very thor­oughly and thought­fully — al­most like a string quar­tet might be — and not treated to the slap-dash ap­proach of two pianists, no mat­ter how able in­di­vid­u­ally, get­ting to­gether quickly, maybe en­joy­ing them­selves, but not giv­ing enough con­sid­er­a­tion to those is­sues par­tic­u­lar to mu­sic writ­ten to be played on one pi­ano [by] four hands.” An ad­van­tage of per­form­ing this kind of mu­sic, Serkin noted, is that, “in be­com­ing mind­ful of the many as­pects of play­ing to­gether with an­other pi­anist, one then comes back to play­ing by one­self with a some­what new, more pre­cise, and more flex­i­ble per­spec­tive. And sit­ting next to Ju­lia Hsu, ob­serv­ing up-close her grace­ful­ness, beau­ti­ful phras­ing, re­laxed ap­proach, and gen­er­ally fe­lic­i­tous play­ing is quite in­spir­ing, to say the least. I can, and have, learned a lot from her.”

On Mon­day, Aug. 22, Serkin closes out both his res­i­dency and the fes­ti­val with a per­for­mance of Dvorˇ ák’s Pi­ano Quin­tet in A ma­jor with the Dover Quar­tet. Marc Neikrug sug­gested the pair­ing of Serkin with Dover, and soon af­ter, both the pi­anist and the quar­tet were among the artists per­form­ing in a me­mo­rial con­cert at this sum­mer’s Tan­gle­wood mu­sic fes­ti­val for Joseph Sil­ver­stein, the for­mer con­cert­mas­ter and as­sis­tant con­duc­tor of the Bos­ton Sym­phony Or­ches­tra.

The en­sem­ble “played beau­ti­fully,” Serkin said, “and I was de­lighted that Marc had put us to­gether for the fi­nal con­cert in Santa Fe.”

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