With the rumble of thunder, Serkin played the masters APPRECIATION

May 10, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Audiences were dazzled by Vladimir Horowitz and seduced by Arthur Rubinstein. They received revealed truth from the hands of Rudolf Serkin.

Of the three great pianistic careers, that of Serkin -- the last of the trio who died Wednesday at the age of 88 -- was the least glamorous. But he was the pianist who was generally considered the greatest interpreter of the greatest music -- the masterpieces of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Serkin's repertory, which made only occasional and generally unsuccessful forays into Chopin and Liszt, was not the sort that one would expect to wow audiences.

But wow them he did. This may seem like something of a contradiction because he was, perhaps, the least naturally gifted of the great pianists. His relatively small hands, with their short fifth fingers, predetermined that he had to spend longer hours in his practice studio than most of his colleagues. But he worked fiendishly to develop reservoirs of power and speed so he would never fall short in serving the composers he worshiped.

The secret of his success was that he combined the analytical and intellectual powers of someone like Artur Schnabel, his predecessor as the pre-eminent Beethoven interpreter, with passionate and imperious playing that produced something like the effect of Old Testament prophecy upon his rapt audiences. Serkin was able to outline the structure of a score like almost no other pianist, following a composer's intentions as closely as humanly possible.

This is not to say he was perfect. His tone was often closer to that of tungsten steel than to velvet or pearls. And he could be a disaster with certain pieces, particularly if they were small or needed an intimate approach. No major pianist ever played Beethoven's F-sharp Major Sonata or Brahms' C-Major Intermezzo so badly. If the piece was small, there simply wasn't enough room for him.

But he could project the biggest pieces on the most gigantic scale imaginable. No listener who heard him play Brahms' "Handel Variations" -- particularly when Serkin was at the peak of his physical powers in the 1950s and '60s -- will be able to forget the way variation followed variation with almost unbelievable emotional and intellectual logic and with ever-growing excitement. When Serkin reached the concluding fugue, his playing achieved the intensity of a thermonuclear explosion.

Singing to himself, clattering his heels, herkily-jerkily moving his arms high above his instrument before crashing his hands onto the keys, Serkin achieved a sonority that was matched only by Horowitz's top climaxes. But whereas Horowitz's emphasis was almost invariably upon his own virtuosity, Serkin took a listener into the white hot core of the music. When Serkin reached this level -- and it was often -- a listener would leave the hall shaking with the experience of having for a moment shared the composer's joy, anger or sadness.

Not the least of Serkin's achievements was that he was able to imbue several generations of musicians with his vision of music's high calling.

Until very recently he remained active as a teacher at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute -- for years he was also its director -- and he had been for the last 40 years director of the summer Marlboro Festival in Vermont. Serkin's success as a teacher cannot be judged simply by the number of outstanding pianists -- from Eugene Istomin in the 1940s to the 23-year-old Ju Hee Suh, who played with the Baltimore Symphony two weeks ago -- that have emerged from his studio.

His influence cannot even be gauged by the number of great string quartets -- the Guarneri, the Cleveland and the Vermeer are just a few -- that blossomed under his careful cultivation at Marlboro. Like that of one of the pianist's early mentors, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, Serkin's influence will be felt whenever a young musician plays in a manner whose fierce integrity combines passionate intuition with architectural depth.

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