I HAVE PLAYED the Rudolf Serkin on Television (Columbia M2 34596, two records) perhaps a dozen times in the past few weeks with reactions that change gradually as it becomes more familiar. The album is a live recording of his 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, including Haydn's late Sonata in E flat, Mozarts Rondo in A minor, K. 511 and Beethovens Les Adieux Sonata as well as Serkin's second recording in the last three years of Schubert's posthumous B-flat Sonata.
All the music here is great in one way or another, but I think the Schubert is by far the greatest, and on the first few playings I simply didn't think that this concert performance, with its occasional imperfections and audience noises, was as satisfying as Serkin's 1975 recording of the same work - not to mention the more smoothly phrased versions by Brendel and Curzon. The other material in the set poses fewer problems for the fingers or the soul and does not compete in the same way with a recent Serkin recording.
With each new hearing, however, the strength of this recording impresses more deeply, with its superb suitablility as a summing up, a tribute to a life deeply devoted to the Viennese classical tradition in music, and an accurate reflection of Serkin as he is or should be best known: in the concert hall.
One comes, finally, to love records like this for their imperfections (which are, in any case, microscopic), to see perfection itself as an illusion - perhaps a necessary illusion, but one that can deprive the listener of enjoyment, the artist of achievement, if it is taken too seriously. This is not only a treasurable memento of an extraordinary musician but a superb presentation of the music with which he is identified. I recommend it warmly.
Haydn: Piano Sonatas in C (H. 20), A flat (H. 46) and G minor (H. 44). Charles Rosen, piano (Vanguard VCS 10131). These works date from the composer's Sturm and Drang period (what might now be called his midlife crisis), during which he made some startling explorations of emotional expressiveness in music. They are less spectacular in this respect than some symphonies of the period, but deep feeling lurks beneath their elegant surface, and Rosen probes it with sensitivity while maintaining an impeccable sense of classical style.
Chopin: Four Scherzi; Four Impromptus. Robert Szidon, piano (DG 2536 378). The knowledgeable Chopin enthusiast, examining the quantity of music on this disc, might conclude that Szidon plays very fast. He does, in fact, but he also plays very slow; his overall timing on each of the scherzi is significantly slower than either Rubinstein or Barbosa, the two whose recordings have stayed in my reference collection. Some may find that these facts point to two kinds of overstatement - it is partly a matter of taste. At any rate, these are impressive performances, on the whole, and there is more than an hour of exquisite music on this disc. On the first few hearings, I found Szidon quite exciting, but I think there is more lasting satisfaction in Rubinstein.