Peter Serkin
UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall
Friday, Nov. 10

What ties a program together? A theme is seldom anything as obvious as Works I Happen to Have Practiced Recently or Pieces in C Major. Last Friday at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall, pianist Peter Serkin brought memory and the past into the present to thread together works ranging from the 15th to the 21st century.

Serkin began with an arrangement of Josquin Desprez’s motet Ave Christe. Technical challenges don’t always come in the form of high, fast and loud. Producing the sustained tones and seamlessly interwoven lines of Renaissance vocal music on a box of strings and hammersand that is, after all, a pretty basic definition of a pianois a real tour de force. But Serkin maintained Josquin’s long-breathed phrases as well as the distinctiveness of the individual vocal lines with a touch so subtle that attacks were all but inaudible. His discreet use of pedaling and Bebung (a technique for keeping the string in motion after it’s been hit by the hammer) allowed the tone simply to bloom out of the instrument.

Serkin’s ability to create pianistic color provided the dreamy atmosphere of Toru Takemitsu’s For Away (1973) and Rain Tree Sketches (1982), two impressionistic pictures of distant remembered places rendered in flurries and spills of notes. Elliott Carter took the title for his Intermittences, composed for Serkin last year, from the passage in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time where memories of the author’s grief for his dead grandmother rush up unbidden from his unconscious. Serkin’s technique truly shone here, powerful staccato bursts punching through eddies of swirling legato sound.

The first half concluded with the Capriccio on the Departure of a Most Beloved Brother by J. S. Bach, only 17 years old when he wrote it. Serkin zeroed in on the work’s affects, or moods, the key to understanding and interpreting baroque music: the first movement coaxing, as the brother’s friends try to talk him out of leaving; the second, fearful, as they describe the misfortunes that might befall him; the third, lamenting, as the friends realize they cannot dissuade him; the fourth, nostalgic, as they say their goodbyes. In an aria and a fugue based on the notes of the post horn, played to announce the arrival of the coach in which the young man will set off, the mood suddenly shifts, the excitement of new beginnings revealed.

The program ended with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 106, the “Hammerklavier.” This defining late-period work took the piano sonata out of the parlor and into the concert hall with unprecedented virtuosity and extremes of dynamics and range. Serkin’s passionate energy, particularly in the first movement, was electrifying. The third movement was a journey through the private, silent world in which Beethovenby the time of the piece’s writing in 1818had been living for years. Serkin’s father, pianist Rudolf Serkin, was a renowned interpreter of Beethoven, and the son’s strong bond with the composer’s spirit was plain: thoughtfulness without intellectualism, deep emotion without sentiment, grave humor without jocularity. Serkin’s treatment of the last movement, though, was almost perfunctory. Perhaps he was distracted by the noisiness of the audience. Given all the money Carolina must have spent refurbishing the hall, did no one think to train the ushers to seat latecomers between movements or to ask the maintenance staff to grease the hinges of the seats?

Deficiencies of the room aside, what’s so unusual and so rewarding about Serkin is not just his championing of new works. It’s the way he treats every piece as the new work it once wasby rethinking, and thus letting us hear anew, each phrase and touch.