Critic's Notebook: Peter Serkin - Born to rebellion

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LENOX — Peter Serkin was a child of notable musical forebears and the 1960s counter-culture.

The pianist, who died at 72 Feb. 1 at his home in Red Hook, N.Y., was rightly celebrated for championing new music as part of a continuum from past to present. But tellingly, the family and cultural heritage left a rebellious stamp on his playing, including a tilt toward new music from the cerebral end of the spectrum.

Here, rebellion went in an opposite direction from the drugs and rock `n' roll of the generation. Although Serkin took a youthful interest in Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead, and did indeed drop out for a while, it was the classical tradition he had grown up with that set him on his course.

Serkin was a familiar figure in the Berkshires. He performed at South Mountain, Williams College and Bard College at Simon's Rock and, in a span from 1970 to 2018, appeared regularly at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Music Center orchestras. He was also a regular with the BSO in Symphony Hall. Formerly a resident of Richmond, he enrolled his children in the Richmond public school. He was teaching at Bard until his illness and death.

On the stage, the slender Serkin presented an image of gravity and perhaps shyness. He would walk stiffly out, nod quickly to the audience, gaze at the keyboard as if in meditation, and deliver the music — whether Mozart or Schoenberg — with lucidity and utter honesty.

Rarely did you hear surging passion or storming virtuosity from this intellectually penetrating musician. To me, his most defining performances were not of Bach or the moderns he played with pristine clarity, but the two Brahms piano concertos.

These are big, bold, passionate works — or at least we think of them that way. Serkin tried to go back to a smaller 19th-century sound and conception. It was an imaginative but ultimately frustrating approach, miniaturizing works that wear their passions large. Brahms the classicist won out over Brahms the romantic.

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If you were so inclined, you could say Peter Serkin played the works just the way his father, Rudolf Serkin, would not have played them.

Rudolf Serkin was one in a line of magisterial European pianists that also included Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus and Wilhelm Kempff. On the maternal side, Peter Serkin's grandfather was Adolf Busch, a German violinist and conductor in the same Central European tradition. The two families were among the founders of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. Peter grew up on the family farm in nearby Guilford.

By 12, Peter had embarked on a traditional career like his father's. Coming of age in the `60s, he fell under the sway of the youth rebellion questioning authority in all areas of culture and governance. At 21, he ceased performing and traveled in Asia, where he pursued an interest in Hinduism and BuddhisOn his return to America, Serkin joined with three friends in forming Tashi, a pioneering contemporary-music group. He deliberately distanced himself from his father's school of performance, generally looking outside the mainstream for expression. The complex but ecstatic French composer Olivier Messiaen became an abiding interest.

In a 1987 interview with the Boston Globe, Serkin recalled that his family "took music so seriously, in the Old World sense of being a kind of religion," and put such stress on being a musician, that it was necessary "for me to just drop that." Performing was often "a painful ordeal" for him, and he could not bear all "that harping by musicians and critics on how you play, as if that's the central issue."

The issue was what you played and why, not how. Serkin played standard works, and some dating back to the Renaissance. In contemporary music, he favored — and often premiered — works by such gnarly composers as Charles Wuorinen, Stefan Wolpe and Toru Takemitsu, in addition to Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

The onstage image lingers. There were touches of humor in his playing, but the main impression was tension that imparted logic to structure, line and destination but, as in the Brahms concertos, left the music closed and a bit chilly. For some, admiration rather than — as with his father and such later pianists as Alfred Brendel — affinity was the response.

However "harping" about the how, you had to respect that searching intensity and integrity in Peter Serkin.



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