The pianist Peter Serkin made his New York debut when he was only 12 years old. His real introduction to the public – as an artist of his special merits, not just as the son of the well-known pianist Rudolf Serkin – took place six years later, in 1965, 1965. with his recording of Bach’s “Goldberg” variations.
Critics praised the lively, elegant and clear game. Many pointed to the extraordinary maturity of this teenager’s interpretation.
I was very impressed by this recording. Just a year younger than Serkin, I was a serious pianist at the time, planning on making music in college. But our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. There were no musicians in my family; My talent and passion seemed to come from nowhere. Serkin had inherited the mantle of classical music as a birthright for generations and received the best education imaginable.
Even so, I felt that he and I were kindred spirits, though I couldn’t explain why at the time. When I hear this remarkable Bach recording today, I better understand what touched me so deeply.
From his relaxed lyrical design of the opening theme to his quiet but subtly restrained playing of the first variation of the jump, he approached this impressive masterpiece with unspoiled directness and sincerity. His performance combined an almost spiritual equilibrium with subtle joy. He sent the brilliant variations clearly and neatly, without a trace of conspicuousness.
This breakthrough was reissued as part of a 35 disc box set of his full recordings on the RCA label (and some on Columbia) made during the first three decades of his career. It was released last year, just four months after he died of pancreatic cancer in February. The collection offers a large selection of solo pieces, chamber works and concerts by Beethoven, Berio, Chopin, Mozart, Takemitsu, Stravinsky, Schönberg and others – in exploratory, clear, often intoxicating performances. I did not know some of these recordings; I hadn’t heard others in years. The set has strong memories of Peter – how I met him – and revived his great artistry and the intersection of our lives and professions.
Since his recordings kept coming out after these “Goldberg” variations, I eagerly bought them and followed Peter’s journey. There was his spacious, searching, yet seductively playful account of Schubert’s late, long Sonata No. 18 in G, which was recorded during the same sessions as Bach but published in 1966. There were exciting collaborations with Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bartok’s First and Third Piano Concertos and Schönberg’s Piano Concerto, a piece that overwhelmed me at the time. The Schönberg album from 1968 contained the five piano pieces (op. 23). Peter’s convincing performance inspired me to learn this job, which I ended up doing, with tremendous effort, to graduate from college.
Rudolf Serkin was a childhood hero to me and I will always appreciate his impressive art. But in my early 20s, a generation change brought me to solidarity with his son. Peter seemed to be the unimpressed pianist leader of our emerging generation, claiming classical music on his own terms. I wanted to meet him, hang out. I had a hunch that we could become friends.
However, we didn’t meet until the summer of 1987, just a few weeks before he turned 40. Until then, I was a freelance critic for The Boston Globe, and he taught young artists at Tanglewood Music Center. He was known to be interview-shy, burned by the derogatory reactions of critics in the 1970s when he wore a ponytail and a thread-like goatee. often performed with Nehru shirts and love pearls; and despised the virtuoso touring route, which he compared to a “monkey who performs his trained action again and again with the same pieces”.
In 1973 he and three like-minded young musicians founded Tashi, an ensemble that focused on contemporary music. These adventurous players put on dozens of intriguing performances and made a best-selling recording of their signature track, Messiaen’s mystical “Quartet for the End of Time”.
Peter wanted to shake up classical music, which in his opinion was far too indebted to the old repertoire and traditional protocols. Even so, he found it difficult to keep himself from being seen as “the reluctant ambassador of the counterculture for the pure concert world,” as critic Donal Henahan put it in a 1973 profile in the New York Times. And he was fed up with being asked about his complicated relationship with his father.
I knew all of this in our interview and was a little careful. But from the moment we met, I felt good. We sat on the grass under the sun on the Tanglewood grounds and talked for a few hours about everything: his memories of how intensely he experienced music as a child; his trips to India, Thailand and Mexico in the early 20s when he stopped performing and even practicing for a while to “find out who I am without her”; the satisfaction he gained that summer in coaching a new generation of musicians who seemed to share his innate curiosity about new music; and his enthusiasm for an ambitious project he was planning to tour a program of 11 new works written for him. It also learned to deal with difficult fathers. We met the following week in Tanglewood – which, as we would have said at the time, was really cool.
At that point, however, our relationship was defined and, to some extent, constrained by our respective roles as performer and critic. (Actually, I was still performing actively at the time, and Peter wanted to know everything about my work and hear some concert recordings that I shared with him.) Had I not been a critic, we might have developed a real friendship; Had I not been a critic, I might never have met him. In a way, I already felt that I could do more for the music and for Peter by being an informed observer of his remarkable work.
For years after that first meeting, he and I spoke on the phone occasionally, exchanged emails, and sometimes found opportunities to meet. He was so fond of teaching in Tanglewood that summer that he bought a house in the Berkshires and lived there with his wife and children. He invited me to visit. Right now I wish I had accepted. But even he understood, I think, that it was better to keep a certain amount of professional distance.
People may assume that, as a critic, there is no way I can be objective about an artist whom I feel very much about. But just as a writer can tell the truth about problematic aspects of a manuscript to a friend of a writer, perhaps I, who admired Peter’s play so much, could see when his take on a piece wasn’t quite clicking.
For example, the new collection includes three albums of Chopin works recorded between 1978 and 1981 when Peter revisited a composer he was not known for performing. He brought out the ruminant, poetic elements of the music, even in mazurkas and waltzes that might seem smooth on the surface. His recording of the 14-minute polonaise fantasy, one of Chopin’s most elusive and original scores, is overwhelming. Peter makes the piece seem like a dark, restless, fantastic reflection on the deeper legacy of the polonaise, a defining dance of Chopin’s war-torn homeland.
But he also applied this thoughtful approach to Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante with less success. This was perhaps the next step Chopin took to write an unabashed virtuoso showpiece. I understand what Peter wanted and it’s fascinating. But the performance is so testing it feels a little grounded. You want the effortless glare of a Vladimir Horowitz.
Peter’s extraordinary recording of Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésu” from 1973 remains final for me. This two-hour work, which consists of 20 pieces, presents astonishing technical challenges, as the music alternates between meditative timelessness and exuberant, almost frenzied spirituality, which is traversed by the calls of birds. Peter took it on tour, played it completely and by heart, sometimes accompanied by atmospheric lighting. When we first spoke, he remembered Messiaen hearing him play the piece. After that the composer was “really too nice,” said Peter: “He told me that I respect the score, but if I don’t, it’s even better.”
The album that perhaps meant the most to Peter was “… in real time” with works written for him, including some of the 11 scores he had on this commissioned program from Henze, Berio, Takemitsu, Kirchner, Alexander Göhr and Oliver Knussen and Peter’s childhood friend Peter Lieberson played. He lets the swirling busyness and the sour sounds of Berio’s “fire piano” sound like a crackling fire; He dives under the surging grace and tenderness of Lieberson’s “Breeze of Delight” to reveal the eerie pull of the music.
Peter began teaching at the Bard College Conservatory of Music in 2005 and loved working with the curious students that the program attracted. Even while enduring debilitating cancer treatments, he continued to try to teach and play. In an email to me in April 2019, he wrote of “terrible pain and exhaustion, much worse than last time”. Nevertheless, he had forced himself to attend a performance of Brahms’ piano quartet in C minor because the cellist Robert Martin, a close colleague, was playing his final concert as director of the Conservatory. “It went well enough,” he wrote. In fact, it’s a profound performance hit, as a video makes clear.
I had agreed to visit him at his home near Bard in August, on my way back to New York, after covering Tanglewood’s contemporary music festival for a few days. But on the morning of our scheduled meeting, Peter wrote that he was miserable. The next day he texted me again to tell me how sad he was that he canceled.
“I brought out a little four-handed music in case you wanted to play, but I think I’ll bring it back down now for possibly another time,” he wrote.
There was no other time. We tried to reschedule, but his health was too shaky. The last email he sent me three months before he died was a brief reply to a message I had sent. “Yes, we are good friends,” he said, “and I look forward to seeing you.”
Friends in our own way indeed.