Peter Serkin is a pianist of Brendelian demeanour whose interpretations of the classics are full of striking rhetorical contrasts: controlled but unpredictable dynamic extremes, always urgent and occasionally strident rhythmic expression, and a keyboard manner which is aloof one minute, playful the next. An upshot is that he can seem in professorial exegesis mode for much of his recitals – which one wouldn’t want to complain about too much, since a great deal of what he communicates is valid and important, even if the style of his delivery limits its impact (his approach is either an audience-oblivious detachment which borders on the clinical, or the opposite, a gregarious and uninhibited manner of dissection that practically encourages something like the illicit thrill of watching a public autopsy).

Peter Serkin © Kathy Chapman
Peter Serkin
© Kathy Chapman

There were, however, moments in this recital when Serkin put his dismantling of the music to one side and focused on summoning the gravitas which Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations have to acquire at some point or other. That moment came pretty late in the piece, in the three bars at the end of the thirty-second variation’s fugue which present what initially appears to be a harmonic destabilization. We start out with a diminished seventh in E flat major, which suddenly, startlingly, becomes a chord of E minor. From this point Beethoven moves directly into the C major of the final variation, revealing a much broader upward resolution, albeit one which doesn’t reinforce the tonic so much as put it in a dramatically altered light. A mobile phone ruined the impact of Serkin’s E minor (played with decay-defying depth of sound), and it was a great pity his efforts to make these chords matter were undermined. A similar meaningful moment at the end of Stefan Wolpe’s Toccata in Three Parts was also spoiled – here the rambling discourse of a huge double fugue comes to a momentary halt, allowing for an introspective moment before a crashing chord brings the piece to an abrupt close – by the intrusion at the worst possible moment of a gaudy ringtone.

But where unwitting audience participation didn’t distract – and here I should also add that someone else left their wake-up call ringing throughout a good two-thirds of the short Takemitsu piece For Away – there was a sense of impaired communication coming from Serkin himself. Some performers are perfectly at ease in the bright acoustic of the Mozart Saal, while others find the exposure intimidating – including, I think, Serkin, whose generally faultless playing belied his shaking hands. Much of the programme was overpedalled and few pianissimos, or even pianos for that matter, were played without the soft pedal. The dampened muddiness reached a somewhat idiosyncratic height in the play of dynamic contrasts in the nineteenth Diabelli variation. Elsewhere more of an obvious or ironicized sense of parody was missing in the Beethoven, which not only spoofs Diabelli in its less reverent moments but also Don Giovanni. The central adagio in the Wolpe, titled ‘Too much suffering in the world’, also seemed rather passive.

Much can be made, in Schoenberg’s Suite, of the parody of centuries-old forms using the ahistorical musical language of the twelve-tone method, but Serkin’s interpretation was, again, an irony-free zone and I’m afraid I found it rather ugly and characterless. The best playing of the evening was to be found amid the delicate textures and gentle utterances of the Takemitsu, which, mobile phone excepted, was quite haunting.