Peter Serkin, In Real Time

The New York Times obituary by Anthony Tommasini is excellent.

”When I was young, I composed quite a bit. My father was very critical. He told me how Schoenberg had said you couldn’t compose until you knew all the Haydn quartets. So I got to know all the Haydn quartets.” — Peter Serkin to Paul Griffiths.

I began as a jazz pianist; I still am, of course. But after moving to New York City in 1991, I became immersed in learning about classical music. Peter Serkin was a key figure. I collected dozens of Serkin’s LPs (mostly in the used bins for a few dollars a side) and heard him in concert. Through Serkin I learned of Peter Lieberson, who became my favored American composer of that era.

Live performances:

1995: Bach E major concerto and Stravinsky Capriccio with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The slow movement of the Bach was mesmerizing, a gentle wail of grief.

1997: Recital of Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Bach and Beethoven Waldstein. The audience was restless during the Reger (which I admit was a bit boring) and respectful during the Beethoven. The famous final octave glissandos drew gasps. For an encore, Serkin blazed through the Chopin “Butterfly” etude.

2000: Recital of the Wolpe Toccata in Three Parts, Stravinsky Sonata, Mozart K.332, Beethoven Les Adieux. The Wolpe and Stravinsky seemed much more lively than the older sonatas, but perhaps they just suited my mood. The encore was the melodic Beethoven Bagatelle in B-flat and couldn’t have been played any better.

2006: Recital of Bach and Toru Takemitsu. The Bach was almost painfully wooden and sloppy while the Takemitsu was fully engaged and note-perfect.

Serkin recorded many LPs of the standard repertoire. They didn’t always work, at least for my taste back then. I’d need to hear them all with fresh ears, but the last time I purged my collection, my aggressive and probably controversial opinions ran something like this: The Mozart concerti with Alexander Schneider were delightful but the Fantasia in C minor K 475 was absurdly slow, even more pretentious than Glenn Gould. Some of the Chopin solo work was pretty, but other times the phrasing was strangely hollow in effect, with both hands at the same monotone dynamic. The Beethoven sonatas on period instruments were irritating. A real low point were the Bach Inventions, where dance rhythm was replaced by a note-by-note glossy waft through the counterpoint. I bought this CD, got rid of it, and then bought it again to see if I had been crazy — yet the second purchase only confirmed my dire initial assessment.

The conventional dime-store Freudian take on Peter Serkin is that he tried to do something different than his father, the legendary Rudolf Serkin. Rudolf was all storm and stress, brilliant, driven, someone who stormed the heavens with the German classics. (If you are allowed only one recording of the Moonlight, Pathetique, and Appassionata sonatas, there’s nothing wrong with acquiring the old Columbia LP by Rudolf Serkin.)

In reaction to the muscular and direct perspective of his father, the son was consciously gentle and wayward — or, at least, so went the dime-store Freudian take.


A video of father and son playing a simple Schubert march is extraordinary. The rhythm is simply perfection, with a sway and swing that would defy any traditional notation. Maybe they rehearsed for hours, or maybe they could just sit down and do it with no discussion.

Rudolf knew Arnold Schoenberg and other major composers personally but rarely programmed any music written in the 20th century. It was left to the son to take on that challenge. Advocacy for modernist repertoire is the true legacy of Peter Serkin. It is impossible to imagine ever purging these recordings…

Schoenberg: The Piano Concerto with Pierre Boulez impressed me, while the recital of the complete solo music on Arcana is in a class of its own in terms of restraint and lyricism. No one did more to make disjunct atonal phrasing luscious than Peter Serkin. (Serkin also recorded the Berg Chamber Concerto with Issac Stern and a remarkably intense traversal of the Webern Variations.)

Messiaen: For many, the history of Messiaen reception in America begins with Serkin, first with performances and a recording of the massive solo work Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, then in chamber music with the collaborative ensemble Tashi. From the NPR obit by Tom Huizenga:  “[Tim] Page adds that Tashi made Messiaen’s lengthy, meditative Quartet for the End of Time a calling card, performing the piece in concert halls and rock clubs, ‘helping turn the work into a warhorse.'”

Stravinsky: A New World CD of Serenade in A and the Sonata is one of my cherished possessions, a landmark in my development as a listener, comparable to my first LP of Thelonious Monk unaccompanied in Paris. I eventually heard every Stravinsky work, a journey that began with this recording. It remains somewhat uncommon for a major pianist to perform and record these Stravinsky Neo-Classic pieces, but Serkin showers love upon their slender frames, making a case for their inclusion in the standard repertoire.

Stefan Wolpe: Also on the same disc is Form IV: Broken Sequences and Passacaglia (from Four Studies on Basic Rows). Later on Serkin recorded my favorite of the Wolpe repertoire, the blistering Toccata in Three Parts. It is in Wolpe that Serkin lets himself be truly furious and even ugly at the piano. Incredible virtuosity.

Toru Takemitsu: The refined soundscapes of Takemitsu were a perfect match for Serkin’s counter-culture leanings to the East, and the disc Peter Serkin plays Toru Takemitsu is a basic library item.

Peter Lieberson: Another scion from another famous family.  (Lieberson’s father was an important Columbia Records executive, his mother was a muse of George Balanchine.) The two Peters met as young boys and shared many tastes, including a love of Takemitsu and Eastern thought. Serkin premiered and recorded most of Lieberson’s piano music, including two piano concertos, a piano quintet, several solo works and the Rilke Songs with Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. I have a special affinity for this repertoire and wrote up Lieberson’s oeuvre for DTM.

Alexander Goehr: The early Piano Concerto is a compelling if rather bitter listen. The piece that truly impressed me was the title track from the Serkin compilation ...In Real Time. This is one hell of a great piece, where basic tonal harmony is ironically undone from a multitude of chaotic angles. Wow!

Charles Wuorinen: A substantial Bagatelle appears on another essential Serkin anthology, The Ocean that has no West and no East. (This CD includes the aforementioned passionate Webern Variations and the coruscating Wolpe Toccata.) Serkin premiered and recorded the humorous Wuorinen Scherzo while the Fourth Piano Concerto (2003) and the Piano Quintet No. 2 (2008) were probably the last “big” pieces to enter Serkin’s active repertoire. For his “Perspectives” series at Carnegie Hall in 2001, Serkin curated several Wuorinen pieces alongside late Stravinsky. (Oliver Knussen was important to that series as well, and Serkin’s recordings of Knussen’s Prayer Bell Sketch and Variations are definitive.)

Richard Scheinin asked Serkin in 2012, “Any plans to learn music by some of the cool young composers in Brooklyn?” Serkin replied, “I’m always interested, but I haven’t yet found anyone to whom I would attach the kind of importance I would to Wuorinen, for instance, or Takemitsu, when he was alive. But that’s just because of my limitations, I’m sure.”

Perhaps, but Serkin was far less “limited” in outreach than most, especially from his old-fashioned peer group. In a 1985 Serkin profile by Frank Conroy, Ned Rorem flatly states, “He is the only big name of his age to feel a duty toward the music of his time.”

At one point, Serkin took a year off to learn a heavy new program of commissioned repertoire, some of which ended up being on …In Real Time. The related 1989 New York Times article by Leslie Kandell, “When Does Six Minutes Add Up to Two Years?” documents the perplexity everyone seemed to feel at the prospect of a project that had no real reason other than a friendly iconoclast’s desire to play new sounds.

Another piece in my Serkin pantheon is Luciano Berio’s Feuerklavier, an “encore” found on ...In Real Time. Feuerklavier is a perfectly ordered motivic atonal rhapsody that says all it needs to say in exactly three minutes. After listening to the brand new CD, I immediately went to the library and photocopied the score. To this day Feuerklavier comes in handy:  When jazz piano students show up on my stoop playing manic and arhythmic rhapsodies of little import, I relax, cue up the track, and say, “Sounds very interesting! But have you heard Peter Serkin play Berio?”

“Practice is a very peaceful way to spend the day.” — Peter Serkin to David Dubal.