Less Celebrated Beethoven No Less Appealing to Pianist

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Peoples’ Symphony Concerts Peter Serkin performed several Beethoven works during this series running at the High School of Fashion Industries in Chelsea.

The pianist Peter Serkin has gained a reputation as a champion of new music during his distinguished career, although in his recital at the High School of Fashion Industries on Saturday evening he chose to focus on Beethoven. He performed under the auspices of the excellent Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series, which presents renowned artists at affordable ticket prices.

Mr. Serkin also has a reputation as an intellectual performer, a musician who values Apollonian precision over Dionysian abandon. There are rewards to that approach, like his admirable control and rich sound during quieter moments in the 11 Bagatelles (Op. 119) and the 6 Bagatelles (Op. 126), one set performed on each half of the program.

Beethoven wrote these elegant miniatures late in his career; his Leipzig publisher thought that the Op. 119 Bagatelles were so trite that no one would believe that Beethoven had written them. Trifling they certainly aren’t, but despite appealing elements — like Mr. Serkin’s warm, fluid touch — they did sound rather characterless and monochromatic here.

Mr. Serkin paired each set of Bagatelles with a sonata, with No. 31 in A flat (Op. 110) following the Op. 119 Bagatelles on the first half of the program. The cantabile lines of the opening section unfolded eloquently, but over all it proved a dispassionate reading that lacked a vital warmth and momentum. It was hard to discern the rationale behind some of Mr. Serkin’s interpretive decisions.

He also made unusual choices in his unconvincing rendition of the “Adieux” Sonata, one of several works Beethoven dedicated to Archduke Rudolph, a fine amateur pianist and generous patron. Beethoven composed the work during Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna, when the royal family (including the young archduke) fled. He titled the three movements “Farewell,” “Absence” and “Reunion.”

The opening sounded rather methodical in Mr. Serkin’s performance, with rhythmic distortions blemishing the first movement, a flaw that also occurred in Op. 110. He deftly illuminated the harmonic details of “Les Adieux,” but in general the playing seemed chilly and overly eccentric.

As an encore, Mr. Serkin offered a refreshingly straightforward interpretation of the third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 25 in G (Op. 79).



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