Rudolf Serkin

Rudolf Serkin

To name one single pianist who combined the extremities of intuition and intellect, I would choose Rudolf Serkin. His playing has nothing attractive. He never played a true 'dolce'. He did not fuss upon the colour and touching either. His chords were clean but dry, a bit shallow in weight. His phrasing had rugged archs. It is so difficult to find the above statements to be so fully realized in a pianist of such a reputation as Serkin's. He never tried to smooth the music. He just let the music be as tough, as rugged as he perceived it. He did not find it necessary to make the music more beautiful. He found it sufficient. Some pianists today smooth the lines of the music with tactful but unneccessay decorations. True confidence does not relies on make-up to conceal; true understanding never restricts itself to the surface. At his best (most of the time), Serkin was a pianist who believed and understood with his whole heart and mind. He did not need any artifact.

His may not be the warmest piano sound, but his music is itself ethreal. Listening to Serkin does not bring comforts to the ear, it gives ignition to the heart. In the great Adagio of the Hammerklavier Sonata, no one pianist has been more mercurial in conveying its intensity of feelings. In him we feel Beethoven's heart burning. Serkin did not turn the pathos and longing into calm solemnity as many other great pianists have done. Serkin's playing never have that smooth elegance as Solomon's. In the titanic semiquavers middle section, everything sound simple. Right-hand semiquavers are set against left-hand chords three in a group. Solomon 's reading is famous for its perfect finish. The polished surface leaves more majesty and integrity. Serkin played the same passage with a rhythmic urgency which led one to feel an ardent longing for elevasion. The power of the reading is not achieved through virtuosic means. The tension comes from the instinctive forward pulse. He allowed himself great freedom in tempo throughout the long movement. But he voyaged through the movement in a single breath from start to finish. It is a voyage with no 'stops'. It is not what instinct alone could achieve. It is the combination with immense intellectual power. Unfortunately, this great performance is a bit neglected.

When he played, Serkin was always restless and totally absorbed. If he were possessed, it would be by the soul of the composer. He was so determined to play as fast as he could as if he feared he had not enough time to speak all his words. As in his classic recording of the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 with George Szell, the first movement was taken at a nearly impossible speed. But the urgency is telling. The articulation and the stunning double notes were done so immaculately. His a bit awkward techique was afterall pretty remarkable. Perhaps, his negligence of surface decoration allowed his full attention to be given to throwing out what was in his heart. The second movement was filled with a trully romantic ardor, though as expected of Serkin, the sound is a bit dry. He never trully played 'softly'. He wanted every note to register its presence. He understood each one of them as a friend and he did not smooth them out.

Though Serkin was a great personality, he was a surprisingly sympathetic chamber musician. He recorded the two Brahms Cello Sonatas with Rostropovich at the age of eighty. It was the first time he learned to play the First. Age began to show but the insights and detailed articulation were unmistakably of a great master. He unburied the linkage to a Bach tocatta from the opening of the third movement. But his best fruit in partnership must certainly be reserved for his duo with Adolf Busch, an important violinist. At that time Serkin was still a young man of twenty at the beginning of his career; Busch, twenty years his senior, had already established himself as a revered violinist. Busch was a reknown interpreter of Beethoven and other German composers for his intellectual musicianship. In this great artist, scholarly intellect was never an end in itself. In this sense, the two man were the mirror of one another. In can also be possible that Serkin was greatly inflenced by Busch. They respected one another. Even Busch's daughter loved Serkin and they got married. As a young man, there was greater charm in Serkin's playing. It was more poetic, more variation in shading. His attention to details and articulation was already marvelous. A highlight is the first movement of the Seventh Sonata by Beethoven. The sonority produced by the sweeping scales of the opening has a mystic authority.

Recently, Sony has reissued his unreleased recordings of nine Beethoven sonatas(SM3K 64490). They include the last three masterpieces. Those last works of Beethoven are real gems and in them Serkin threw off his best.

Toward the end of his career, his repertoire narrowed to only Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Sometimes music lovers find his playing 'almost too serious'; but no one should regret for his growth in wisdom and revelation. At his 80th Birthday, he played the last three Beethoven sonatas in Vienna. The performance showed his age and mortality. But the spirit of the performance is immortal. The white-hot concentration was the result of single-minded dedication and absorption in the world of Beethoven. As with his Mozart's concertos recorded about this time, they may not be the 'standard recommendation' in the 'standard' CD guides. But what they offer is a unique personality : a wise and passionate pianist who never pretended.

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