Peter Serkin gives illuminating recital at University of Baltimore
When the University of Baltimore opened its Student Center a few years ago, the Performing Arts Theater on an upper floor proved to be a little gem of a venue. (Well, there was an annoying electronic hum for a couple seasons, but that's finally gone now.) UB president Robert Bogomolny envisioned an active space for classical music and even went up to the Steinway and Sons factory in New York to purchase a concert grand with the help of stellar pianist Yefim Bronfman, who dutifully played his way through half a dozen or so instruments before settling on one with abundant tonal impact. Not too many 200-seat theaters boast a nine-foot Steinway, I'd bet.
This season, the piano is getting its biggest workout so far with the help of a recital series focusing on noted keyboard artists, such as Peter Serkin, who performed at UB on Saturday night. (Gary Graffman wraps up the series next month.) The place wasn't packed -- I think the challenge of urban parking has kept more people from discovering the theater -- but the audience was well rewarded.
With his three-piece suit, pocket handkerchief and glasses, the graying Serkin (pictured at left) resembled a banker from a 1940s movie when he stepped onto the small stage. In some ways, his approach to music-making had some of the aloofness of a studious financial executive, too, but ...
there was plenty of fire in his playing nonetheless.
Serkin can always be counted on to think through every aspect of a composition, to ensure that the whole program makes a cohesive statement and that the audience will have much to contemplate on the way home. In this case, the unifying theme was baroque music, but only two of the four composers whose works were played actually came from the baroque era.
By placing Debussy’s Six epigraphes antiques between one of John Bull's ingenious fantasies on the first six notes of a scale and a transcription of J.S. Bach's C minor Lute Suite, BWV 997, Serkin revealed their similar concerns with clarity of line and texture. The baroque popped up in the second half of the program, at least briefly. Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Handel dispenses with the Handel tune very quickly, plunging into full 19th century romanticism without another thought about baroque idioms until after all the 25 variations, when a giant fugue provides a finale.
Really driving home the baroque theme was the unusual tuning of the piano. At Serkin's request, the technique of mean-tone temperament, according to principals advocated by Rameau in the mid-1700s, was used. I won't try to explain it (because I'd screw it up), but suffice it to say that it gave the instrument a subtly different quality.
In all of the music, Serkin has much to communicate. The soft, mysterious phrasing in the third of Debussy's Epigraphes was especially effective. In the Bach suite, the pianist achieved a wonderful singing line for the theme of the Fugue and molded highly poetic phrases in the Sarabande.
Serkin played the Brahms score from memory (he used scores for the rest), and he gave it a virtuosic reading, with lots of power and transparency, even at great speed; the Hungarian-flavored variations, in particular, had a real snap. Although there were moments when the pianist's analytical side dominated, with more concentration on details than spontaneous expression, this was pianism of a very high caliber.
Hearing a concert grand at full force in such an intimate setting is a lot of fun, but it seemed as if the hall swallowed up some of the sound. I would have loved to hear a more reverberant afterglow from the piano. That was a minor disappointment, though, in a recital of uncommon intellectual and musical content.