Next Time, Hold the ‘Hammer’

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The New York Sun

On Friday evening at Carnegie Hall, pianist Peter Serkin, son of Rudolf Serkin, gave an interesting, if ultimately disquieting, recital. Much of the material was identical to that of his free concert last June at Town Hall, although this evening the paying customers received a little more polished performance.

“Ave Christe” by Josquin Des Prez was given a stately run-through in an arrangement by Charles Wuorinen. I’m not sure which, but either Mr. Wuorinen or Mr. Des Prez stood from the audience to acknowledge the applause. Mr. Serkin followed with three pieces from the year 1600. “Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la” by John Bull was intoned with a great deal of courtly ceremony. Mr. Serkin made much of its supremely quiet conclusion. “Pavana Lachrymae” by John Dowland – arranged byWilliam Byrd – was similarly paced, measured or plodding, distinguished or soporific, depending on your mood. Finally, less than a minute of a ditty by Byrd himself,”La Volta,” ended the set playfully.

Mr. Serkin deserves high praise for his 40 years of championing the cause of contemporary music, carrying on the tradition of his father who, back in the old country, was the rehearsal pianist for Anton Webern. He has been eloquent in his interpretations of such neglected experimenters as Stephan Wolpe. This night he offered some Elliott Carter, the New York premiere of a Carnegie Hall commission titled “Intermittences.” The work was typical Carter, arbitrary and interminable (although short). Honestly, any other note could have been substituted for any one of these and no one would have been disappointed. Was Mr. Serkin faithful to the score? Who knows? Mr. Carter was on hand for a nod to the crowd.

Finally in this first half, Mr. Serkin played Bach, specifically the prelude “Wer nur den lieben Gott laesst walten” and the “Chromatic Fantasia” and “Fugue in D Minor BWV 903.” In the latter he was really quite impressive, casting aside his previously equivocal sense of note accuracy in favor of a powerful, concentrated effort to be true to the original music. If the last part was a bit unfocused interpretively, it was at least technically well realized.

At intermission, it seemed that this recital was a step in the right direction for this erratic pianist. Nothing to write home about, perhaps, but reasonably solid and respectable. The second half, however, did Mr. Serkin in.

He chose to attempt one of the most difficult sonatas in the repertoire, the “Hammerklavier” (No. 29 in B Flat Major) of Beethoven, and immediately fell flat on his face.The allegro was a mishmash of wrong notes and fuzzy passagework.Mr. Serkin appeared (and sounded) lost at several key junctures, not only guilty of dozens of errors of commission, but substituting whole phrases that were not in the score.The scherzo, from first note to last, was disastrous. There is no need to mince words here: Peter Serkin has no business programming a piece at this level of technical and interpretive challenge in his current state of prowess.

Lastly, I offer this piece of information without comment. Mr. Serkin read from the printed music throughout this entire program.


The Slowind Quintet, which features wind players from the Slovene Philharmonic, made a rare American appearance on Thursday at Trinity Church. The Slowind players walked down the aisles of this lower Manhattan jewel, imitating bird songs on their instruments as they came forward.These avian calls turned out to be the beginning of the piece “Dogodki II” by the contemporary Slovenian composer Losze Lebic. Once ensconced in his chair, hornist Metod Tomac switched from an ocarina to the triangle, while flutist Ales Kacjan played the piccolo, oboist Matej Sarc whistled and imitated the wind, and bassoonist Paolo Calligaris, drummed on his instrument with his fingers. Poor Jurij Jenko had nothing to do but play his clarinet.

The style was a (by now) standard European sound, engendered in the late 1950s by what I like to call the Second Venetian School, led by composers Bruno Maderna, Niccolo Castiglione, Luciano Berio, and Luigi Nono. Nothing much has changed since those days, the music mostly consisting of flutter-tongue vocabulary itself left over from Anton Webern. Still, this type of sonority remains popular with the black turtleneck crowd.

Next came Mozart’s “Fantasie in F minor,” with a delightful and disciplined account of the adagio and allegro. The blending was superb and was enhanced by the parabolic acoustics of the church. Unusually, there were some empty seats at this event, and so I was able to move about and taste different auditory flavors, all of which were tangy and delicious. This was wind playing of a very high order, attacks and sforzandos of pinpoint accuracy,crescendi and diminuendi of impeccable precision. These fine players exhibited a steadfast sense of mission, virtually note perfect throughout the entire recital. In fact, I am hard pressed to remember another concert at Trinity as technically impressive as this one.

For the meat of the program, Slowind offered two classics for wind quintet. “La Cheminee du roi Rene” was written by Darius Milhaud for a section of a 1939 film “Cavalcade,” which also featured music by Arthur Honegger. Milhaud was a native of Aix-en-Provence and was always enamored of the chivalric code and pageantry of this particular king’s court. He created a seven-movement wonder of a descriptive piece that received a kaleidoscopically colored performance at this recital. Most notable was the crispness and good humor of Jongleurs and Joutes sur l’Arc, the relaxed beauty of Aubade and the rollicking good spirits of Chasse a Valabre.Wilde may have stated that the foxhunt was “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible,” but at least Milhaud captured its bonhomie with a great deal of flair.

The program came full circle with a nifty rendition of the wind quintet of Carl Nielsen. If there is one 20th century composer who is not performed anywhere near enough, it is this mighty Dane. Nielsen wrote six extremely evocative and expansive symphonies, wonderful operas – for my money the greatest clarinet concerto after Mozart – and many songs and chamber works. This quintet is beloved by all of its players, partly because they are allowed to make animal noises, perhaps just a tad more tastefully than those of Mr. Lebic. The Slowind group was happily engaged in this type of tomfoolery, but never allowed it to overshadow the broad sweep of the piece, a remarkably wellconstructed thing of beauty.

The New York Sun

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