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Fi­nal per­for­mances of the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val

For mu­sic lovers who have been fol­low­ing the progress of pi­anist Peter Serkin through the past half-cen­tury, the odd­ness of his Aug. 16 recital should not have come as a sur­prise. Much of his ca­reer has been de­voted to rat­tling con­tented lis­ten­ers out of their com­fort zone. Decades have passed since he traded in his hip­pie beads for a nicely tai­lored suit, but his mu­si­cal in­cli­na­tions still point to­ward the outré. Many lis­ten­ers within earshot of my seat in St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium voiced per­plex­ity or dis­plea­sure when the con­cert ended. I un­der­stood.

The first half of the hour-plus mid­day recital was given over to pieces from the 16th and 17th cen­turies, long be­fore the pi­ano ex­isted as an in­stru­ment, even in its ear­li­est forms. The open­ing num­ber was Charles Wuori­nen’s tran­scrip­tion of the mid-Re­nais­sance motet Ave Christe im­mo­late. (Stan­dard choral edi­tions as­cribed the piece to Josquin, but most mu­si­co­log­i­cal opin­ion has shifted to re-at­tribute it to the Nether­lan­dish com­poser Noel Bauldeweyn, whose ghost might have ap­pre­ci­ated at least a nod in the pro­gram notes.) Rather than re­flect his stand­ing as a fear­some mod­ernist, Wuori­nen’s tran­scrip­tions of early mu­sic (of which there are a good many) are ba­si­cally pi­ano re­duc­tions, some­times with lines moved an oc­tave higher or lower than in the orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion, but other­wise what any­body would play if they were read­ing a choral score at the key­board. In this case, it meant five min­utes of slowly un­rolling four-part Re­nais­sance coun­ter­point. Maybe it is the sort of ex­er­cise Serkin would use to achieve a state of mu­si­cal pu­rity when be­gin­ning a prac­tice ses­sion, and he might imag­ine it would serve the same pur­pose for his au­di­ence at the out­set of a con­cert. I think it more likely that it would sim­ply con­fuse them and make them edgy be­cause it is so unan­tic­i­pated. In any case, be­fore be­gin­ning the piece, he had al­ready sat at the key­board in silent med­i­ta­tion for what seemed a very long time; and he would do so afresh be­fore most of the suc­ceed­ing pieces.

There fol­lowed Sweel­inck’s Capric­cio in A mi­nor, again slow, this time with more chro­matic creep­ing — and, again, prob­a­bly mis­at­tributed. Then ar­rived two pieces by John Bull from the Fitzwilliam Vir­ginal Book, a huge repos­i­tory of mostly Bri­tish mu­sic com­piled in the sec­ond decade of the 17th cen­tury. The more in­ter­est­ing was his Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La, a tour-de-force of a fan­ta­sia in which coun­ter­point weaves around ar­tic­u­la­tions of the hex­a­chord (a six-note scale seg­ment), as­cend­ing and then de­scend­ing, its it­er­a­tions an­chored on 12 suc­ces­sive notes (first on G, then on A, and so on), be­fore con­clud­ing in five go-rounds ris­ing from and fall­ing to G, with each of these last five en­livened by a dis­tinct rhyth­mic ac­com­pa­ni­ment. It may have been writ­ten as a demon­stra­tion piece for an ex­per­i­men­tal harp­si­chord with 19 notes to the oc­tave. Any­way, this is a work with a hid­den agenda, and I don’t think the pro­gram note would have done any harm by re­veal­ing some of the se­crets of what might other­wise sound like just a lot of bizarre notes. A lit­tle Gigge by Bull, ap­par­ently a mu­si­cal self-por­trait, served as punc­tu­a­tion, at least pro­vid­ing an up-tempo mo­ment in what was by then a pon­der­ously slow playlist. More slow mo­tion fol­lowed via Dow­land’s Pa­vana lachry­mae, in a key­board ar­range­ment by Wil­liam Byrd, played with twee del­i­cacy on the mas­sive Stein­way; and fi­nally a quick fin­ish to the set with a La­volta by Byrd him­self. One may like all of these pieces and yet find that they add up to a mys­ti­fy­ing way to launch a pi­ano recital.

From Reger came three rarely played se­lec­tions from Aus meinem Tage­buch, a col­lec­tion of short move­ments that dis­play a wry sense of hu­mor and his usual har­monic som­er­saults and side­steps. Fol­low­ing all this ob­scu­rity, Serkin played a fa­mil­iar mas­ter­work — Beethoven’s Sonata in E ma­jor (Op. 109) — in an un­ac­cus­tomed in­ter­pre­ta­tion. The open­ing was voiced strangely, such that the first few mea­sures sounded not soft (pi­ano) and sweet (dolce), as marked,

but frankly rat­tle­trap. I have no idea what that was about, nor could I imag­ine that, in the sec­ond move­ment, Beethoven’s mark­ing the left-hand part ben

mar­cato (strongly ac­cented) was in­tended to mean that it should com­pletely over­power the right hand (the fig­u­ra­tion of which, when it could be heard at all, was in no way a model of clar­ity). The theme of the third-move­ment vari­a­tions was glacially slow. Serkin clearly does not believe that the com­poser’s bilin­gual mark­ings of Ge­sangvoll and cantabile (both mean­ing “song­ful”) have any­thing to do with ac­tual singing; at this tempo, a singer would ex­pire by per­haps the fifth mea­sure.

In other con­certs, Serkin ap­peared in en­sem­ble works, in ev­ery case at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter. On Aug. 14, he joined with the Orion String Quar­tet to play Schoen­berg’s Cham­ber Sym­phony No. 1 in a re­duc­tion crafted in 1923 by the com­poser’s pupil Anton We­bern. This was one of the ar­range­ments cre­ated to bring large works into reach for cham­ber play­ers at Schoen­berg’s So­ci­ety for Pri­vate Mu­si­cal Per­for­mances. The play­ers would re­hearse their pieces to a fare-thee-well and then play them for Schoen­berg, who would ei­ther green-light them to be pro­grammed or else (very of­ten) send the mu­si­cians back to re­hearse some more. I sus­pect this was an in­ter­pre­ta­tion Schoen­berg would have re­manded for more re­fine­ment. Serkin brought con­sid­ered def­i­ni­tion to his part, but the Ori­ons sim­ply gushed forth with­out much dis­tinc­tion of char­ac­ter, as if the mu­si­cal choice avail­able to them was ei­ther “on” or “off” with no gra­da­tion be­tween. That four­some’s per­for­mance of Beethoven’s Quar­tet in E-flat ma­jor (Op. 127), which con­cluded that evening, was also ren­dered in low-res­o­lu­tion, of­ten slip­shod in in­to­na­tion and over­all blend. There were things to ad­mire, such as nicely dove­tailed rhyth­mic joints con­nect­ing sec­tions near the end of the fi­nale, but when all was said and done, the play­ers op­er­ated along a nar­row emo­tional spec­trum and fell short of con­vey­ing any spe­cific point of view about the piece.

On Aug. 18, Serkin joined with vi­olin­ist Ida Kavafian for Schu­mann’s D-mi­nor Vi­o­lin Sonata. This was a gal­lant ef­fort to in­vig­o­rate a piece that can break the hearts of Schu­mann lovers. It comes from the late point in the com­poser’s out­put when in­spi­ra­tion was grow­ing scarce, the well­spring be­ing in­creas­ingly stanched by ter­tiary syphilis. On the whole, the ma­te­rial is too slen­der to jus­tify the piece’s length, and great ex­panses re­sort to se­quences and rep­e­ti­tion. That said, Kavafian’s tone — rich and of­ten mel­low yet pro­ject­ing con­fi­dently through­out her range — in­fused many pages with warm­heart­ed­ness, while Serkin held up his side splen­didly, plumb­ing de­tails of pedal­ing and even ex­tract­ing some noble moun­taineer­ing sounds out of the gummy tex­ture Schu­mann cre­ated in the mixed-me­ter Trio sec­tion of the sec­ond-move­ment scherzo.

Serkin was joined by Ju­lia Hsu on Aug. 21 for a rare out­ing of Fer­ruc­cio Bu­soni’s Fan­ta­sia con­trap­pun­tis­tica in its two-pi­ano ver­sion of 1921. The kernel for the work had ger­mi­nated more than a decade ear­lier as a fan­tasy on the in­com­plete fi­nal move­ment of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, but the com­poser spent the en­su­ing years ex­pand­ing it into a half-hour be­he­moth that pro­claims both his mastery of pi­anis­tic re­sources (he was a no­table vir­tu­oso him­self) and his ob­ses­sion with Bachian coun­ter­point. The re­sult­ing piece has a dis­tinct fla­vor, at once dis­cur­sive and dis­ci­plined, rang­ing along the late-Baroque paths of chorale pre­lude and dense fugue, some­times de­rived di­rectly from Bach, some­times strik­ing out in highly orig­i­nal di­rec­tions. Serkin and Hsu dis­played fine en­sem­ble skills, prov­ing them­selves in­sis­tent mis­sion­ar­ies for the piece. They in­vested a sense of oc­ca­sion in their per­for­mance.

The com­bi­na­tion of Serkin and the Dover Quar­tet pre­sented aes­thetic chal­lenges when they teamed up for Dvoˇrák’s A-ma­jor Pi­ano Quintet (Op. 81) to con­clude the fes­ti­val’s ul­ti­mate con­cert on Aug. 22. The Dover’s hall­mark is sonic lux­ury, clas­sic fi­nesse, and cul­ti­vated pol­ish, whereas Serkin em­pha­sizes ar­cane in­sights af­forded by mo­men­tary cu­riosi­ties he un­cov­ers in a score. They tend to­ward the sen­sual; he fa­vors the cere­bral. One heard the ten­sion at the out­set; Serkin held back in ev­ery rep­e­ti­tion of his open­ing mo­tif, as if sti­fling sobs that he didn’t want to re­lease into a full-fledged out­burst — and this in a piece one would not nor­mally think of as an­guished. The Dovers, in con­trast, seemed happy to plunge into the piece and let it roll. One felt it also in the Trio sec­tion of the Furi­ant move­ment. There, the Dovers con­veyed real wist­ful­ness, while Serkin seemed a step re­moved, as if he were of­fer­ing a care­fully crafted dic­tio­nary def­i­ni­tion of “wist­ful­ness” rather than the thing it­self. Nei­ther is nec­es­sar­ily the right or best ap­proach (although I think this par­tic­u­lar piece owes its ever­green sta­tus to its ca­pac­ity to charm), and it is to the credit of all the mu­si­cians in­volved that they found as much com­mon ground as they did. Serkin’s per­for­mances in the course of his short res­i­dency of­ten proved il­lu­mi­nat­ing, but they could some­times go be­yond the aus­tere to seem rather fussy. He came across as a tightly wound per­former, his ten­sion yield­ing a good many dropped notes and flubbed fig­u­ra­tion. One’s ul­ti­mate im­pres­sion in­cluded re­gret that he ap­peared to de­rive lit­tle plea­sure from his play­ing, not­with­stand­ing its over­all ex­cel­lence.

The Dover Quar­tet had be­gun its stint at the fes­ti­val with an­other work by Dvorˇ ák on Aug. 17, when they were joined by vi­o­list Steven Te­nen­bom and cel­list Eric Kim in the com­poser’s A-ma­jor String Sex­tet. Dvorˇák was thirty-six years old when he wrote this piece and had not yet achieved se­ri­ous recog­ni­tion as a com­poser. The work none­the­less shows im­pres­sive com­po­si­tional tech­nique, and the en­sem­ble was well at­tuned to its pos­si­bil­i­ties. Both of the “add-on” mu­si­cians co­a­lesced nicely with the Dover’s re­fined style, with Te­nen­bom meld­ing seam­lessly into the mid­dle of the tex­ture and Kim adding his im­pos­ing, rich tim­bre as sec­ond cel­list. A mem­o­rable high­light was the fifth vari­a­tion of the fi­nale, in which the two vi­o­las and sec­ond cello play pizzi­cato, in coun­ter­point to flow­ing 16th-notes from sec­ond vi­o­lin and first cello, all be­neath the sus­tained melody of the first vi­o­lin — an imag­i­na­tive bit of en­sem­ble writ­ing that got the sen­si­tive per­for­mance it de­served. Eric Kim also aug­mented the four­some on Aug. 21 for an

Decades have passed since Peter Serkin traded in his hip­pie beads for a nicely tai­lored suit, but his mu­si­cal in­cli­na­tions still point to­ward the outré.

con­tin­ued from Page 23 af­fect­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Schu­bert’s String Quintet, a work that may fairly be de­scribed as sa­cred in the cham­ber-mu­sic canon. The mu­si­cians pro­vided an un­usu­ally gen­er­ous over­lay of vi­brato here, which am­pli­fied the Dover’s nor­mal sweet­ness even be­yond its nor­mal level. On a prac­ti­cal plane, it was an ef­fec­tive way to deal with a com­bi­na­tion of hu­mid­ity and stage heat that was stretch­ing some of the in­stru­ments’ strings out of plumb — a real chal­lenge in lengthy move­ments that al­low no breaks for re­tun­ing.

Peter Serkin

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