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.”