Concerto overpowers Serkin

Music reviews

October 25, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Pianist Rudolf Serkin's performances were characterized by their sense of architecture, their fire and their sense of purpose. The performances of his son, Peter, in repertory closely identified with his father, could not be more different.

Such was my impression of a Shriver Hall recital a few seasons back, in which the younger Serkin wreaked havoc upon Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata and Brahms' "Handel Variations." And such it was Saturday evening in Meyerhoff Hall when I heard the pianist perform the latter composer's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with the Baltimore Symphony and guest conductor Jeffrey Tate.

At about 52 minutes in duration, this was what can almost be described as a slow-motion version of the D minor concerto. It was also one in which I could discern no musical line, no sense of color and no majesty.

Both of the Brahms piano concertos are sometimes described as symphonies with piano obligato. If Serkin so conceived the piece, that may explain why the solo part was so often obscured by the concerto's gnarled, dark orchestral textures. But I think it's just as likely that this pianist does not produce enough sound to compete with the orchestra on equal terms.

And if his sound can be described as scrawny, his phrasing could often be called spasmodic. This -- along with his slow tempos -- made it tough for the orchestra and its conductor. I've heard this orchestra collaborate superbly in Brahms concertos with pianists with conceptions as different as those of Andre Watts, Barry Douglas, Nelson Freire, Garrick Ohlsson, Alfred Brendel and Horacio Gutierrez. On this occasion, however, the orchestra's contribution sounded half-hearted, sloppy and riddled by intonation problems.

The performance received a standing ovation. While that does not mean much in Baltimore nowadays, I know several superb pianists and intelligent critics who happen to think the world of Serkin's playing. I just don't get it.

After intermission, Tate and the orchestra gave a sympathetic reading of Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben." It was strongly characterized from first note to last and marked by powerful, thrusting playing. The orchestra's ensemble may not have been the last word in refinement, but Tate and the players made the closing pages -- the best in the work -- glow with rapture.

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