From Peter Serkin, Engrossing Pianism

Friday, March 31, 2006

Peter Serkin's recital presented by the Washington Performance Arts Society on Wednesday evening at Strathmore Hall was one of the most thoughtful and exciting of the season. The carefully conceived, fluently executed performance not only revealed the inner workings and beauty of the music, but made fascinating connections in a disparate program. Serkin made everything sound astonishingly fresh and alive.

A set of Renaissance pieces reworked for piano by Charles Wuorinen were played with a keen sensitivity toward the unfolding musical line. Serkin gave voice to singing figures from the right hand that grew out of darker, more rhythmic rumblings from the left. Tempos tended to be slow side at first, but as the music took on greater complexity and ornament, the pacing let the music breathe. This measured approach also made the more fleet and dancing passages in the reworked pieces of John Dowland and William Byrd sound especially ecstatic and joyful.

Bach's Chorale from "Wer nur den Lieben Gott Lasst walten" ("All Those Who Seek God's Sovereign"), BWV 691, had a ruminative grace and the relaxing quality of a between-course sorbet, preparing you for the strong colors that Serkin infused in the composer's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903. In that dense and vibrant piece, piercing dissonant notes merged with more chunky chords to bring out the music of scale and intensity that was worlds away from the Renaissance works.

Serkin played Beethoven's Piano Sonata in B-flat, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier," with a ferocious energy and limpid lyricism that avoided the excess nobility so common in interpretations. This was a reading that probed far-reaching extremes, pitting freedom against restraint, quiet tenderness against thunderous rage. Startling in its contrasts, assertive, almost coarse in expression, this was Beethoven the bold, the revolutionary explorer plumbing sound's outer limits. Like all of Serkin's music-making, it was utterly modern and thoroughly engrossing to hear.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

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