Monday 11 June 2012

Aldeburgh Festival 2012: The Alienating Manner of Peter Serkin

It has been some little while since I came out of the first half of a recital feeling quite so irritated. The pianist Peter Serkin had not especially wowed me when performing with the SCO at Saturday's concert, but I had certainly not anticipated my unusually extreme reaction to him flying solo.

The first problem with this recital was the basic programme. Serkin had chosen to combine a 55 minute first half of contemporary works by Knussen, Goehr, Takemitsu and Wuorinen with Beethoven's hour long Diabelli Variations. In any hands I suspect this would have been a challenging combination to bring off, Serkin's manner for me made it a real endurance test.

Things began innocuously enough with Knussen's Variations. This passed my first test for any piece of new, or in this case comparatively new (1989), music heard for the first time – my attention was engaged and I felt I would like to hear it again. Thereafter the trouble started. Returning to perform the Goehr, Serkin seemed to pause for an excessive period of time before commencing the piece. The same thing happened again before (and indeed at the end) of the other three items in the first half. At the start of pieces one felt as if Serkin was waiting for there to be complete silence and indeed if it did not arrive that we might be waiting there all night. Such silence is particularly difficult to achieve in the Maltings where the seats naturally creak. Whereas on Saturday, Knussen's determination to hold stillness after pieces felt like a request, a suggestion, Serkin's felt like an order, and not one that his playing had moved me to naturally obey. The problem was compounded by the fact that Serkin's style often left me uncertain (including at the end of the Beethoven) as to whether or not he had actually finished.

All the pieces in the first half were new to me so it was difficult to come to a firm conclusion about the playing, but I did feel that Serkin was bending phrases, forcing pauses in a way that prevented one getting a sense of the shape of them and this combined with his overall manner made for an increasingly alienating (and especially in the first half irritating) experience. The first half also raised the question of whether these pieces by Knussen, Goehr, Wuorinen and Takemitsu should all sound so similar. If no then Serkin clearly was forcing them into a certain manner, if yes then the programme was ill chosen badly needing more variety – either way it didn't work.

For a few brief minutes at the start of the second half I felt things might improve. This time Serkin started into the theme with abrupt rapidity (the welcoming applause had barely stopped), but it sang along fairly well as did the first couple of variations. But then the problems resumed. Phrases were again bent out of shape, pauses became overlong, climaxes were hammered out. I know Beethoven was revolutionary but I hardly think he should sound quite so much like Knussen as Serkin made him do in places. Periodically I strove to get inside the musical experience – to accept the interpretation, but on each occasion it felt like Serkin could never allow the piece simply to speak but had to jerk it around, to assert his authority on it. The whole approach felt too ordered and almost wholly unemotional – this is how it is and you will follow my directives with no deviation. Had his vision of Beethoven's piece been a compelling one this might not have been such a problem, but it did not compell me. As the long second half wound on I thought nostalgically of the last, magical Beethoven I heard at the Maltings in the hands of Elizabeth Leonskaja.

Just as I acknowledged dissenting voices at the Knussen Double Bill I will acknowledge that some in the audience were of another mind – most notably the gentleman in the row in front who gave Serkin a solo standing ovation at the end. As far as I am concerned he goes down on my list of people I won't rush to hear again.

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