For the centennial celebration of Max Reger’s passing, American pianist Peter Serkin and Herbert Blomstedt travelled to Saxony, the composer’s birthplace, touring orchestras with his Piano Concerto in F minor. At the Semperoper, Serkin performed the piece with the Staatskapelle Dresden, whose fiery temperament worked well for Reger. The score reveals an academic and technically challenging, but not particularly musically pleasant, composition. Still, it is always interesting to hear a rarity at least once performed live by a specialist. After the break, Blomstedt indulged the Dresden audience with a vibrant rendition of Beethoven’s Seventh that left them cheering with stamping feet.

Peter Serkin © Kathy Chapman
Peter Serkin
© Kathy Chapman

Besides Blomstedt’s performances of the piece during his time at the Gewandhaus, where it premiered under Arthur Nikisch's baton in 1910, the soloist too shares a history with this concerto. With a recording and performances, his father Rudolf was also an ambassador of this work, so Serkin carried forth the family legacy. With his page-turner behind him, Serkin played with extreme focus. Except for a few pleased smiles, and some communicative nods to Blomstedt, the soloist kept a controlled, nearly militant posture. He is not a showman. In fact, he seemed professorial in his suit and tie. With this discipline, he tackled Reger’s coarse passages. His fragile solo passages alternated with Reger’s heavy orchestral accompaniment.

The first movement Allegro moderato opens with stirring timpani and a voluminous surge through which Brahms’ symphonic openings greatly resonated. Like a true athlete, Serkin joined in handling the heavy chords with impressive craftsmanship. Blomstedt led his orchestra with great precision, keeping the sections from boiling over. Considered very modern at the time of it première, and therefore not received with open hearts by the audience, Reger composed passages in which syncopated, jazzy premonitions could be heard.

After the immense first movement, Serkin took some time before he continued. In the middle part, Largo con gran espressione, Serkin produced the high points in his performance. While before he played with militant execution, here, with eyes closed, he sensitively produced a dreamy calm that led to some surprisingly moving moments, while at other times offering a contemplative mood.

In the Allegretto con spirito finale, Serkin let a few smiles escape during the playful passages. As Blomstedt sustained a sweeping momentum in the strings, the soloist’s emphatically hit notes and seemingly jazzy phrasing led to upbeat vibes. Twinkling passages in the high register of the piano created some surprising contrasts. A soulful intellectual, Serkin highlighted the accessible aspects of this otherwise heavy-handed opus.

Full of energy, Blomstedt made his Beethoven all seem perfectly effortless. He conducted without score or baton. Tiny wrist movements indicated tempi, while swaying arm gestures stimulated the Dresden musicians. During the opening movement, the solo flautist flew elegantly through her passages; as if a chirping bird caught in the thick texture of the strings. The basses impressed with their throbbing undercurrent. With barely a break, he moved on to the Allegretto with fast tempi that made it fly by, possibly too fast.

In the Scherzo, Blomstedt continued his grand gestures, generating contagious energy. The strings emerged with some lighthearted effects. In the concluding Allegro con brio, the smiling Blomstedt cheered the orchestra along. As the trumpets colourfully punctuated their few notes, the conductor infused his Beethoven with a joyful urgency, while maintaining crisply layered clarity.

The sheer joy and vitality of the 88-year-old Blomstedt proved utterly compelling. And with loud bravi after, the audience at the Semperoper certainly agreed.