A Critic and a Pianist, Close but Not Quite Friends

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A 35-disc set of Peter Serkin’s remarkable recordings rekindles our critic’s memories of their intersecting careers.

The pianist Peter Serkin made his New York debut when he was just 12. But his real introduction to the public — as an artist of his own special merits, not just as the renowned pianist Rudolf Serkin’s son — came six years later, in 1965, with his recording of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.

Critics praised the vibrant, elegant and clear playing. Many singled out the exceptional maturity of this teenager’s interpretation.

That recording made a powerful impression on me. Just a year younger than Serkin, I was then a serious pianist planning to pursue music in college. But our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. There were no musicians in my family; my talent and passion had seemed to come out of nowhere. Serkin had inherited the mantle of classical music as a birthright going back generations, and received the best training imaginable.

Still, I felt he and I were kindred spirits, though at the time I couldn’t explain why. Listening today to that remarkable Bach recording, I understand better what affected me so deeply.

Serkin, in the foreground, playing with his father, the eminent pianist Rudolf Serkin.
Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

From his serenely lyrical shaping of the opening theme, and then his lilting yet subtly restrained playing of the bouncy first variation, he approached this formidable masterpiece with unspoiled directness and sincerity. His performance combined an almost spiritual equilibrium with soft-spoken joy. He dispatched the brilliant variations crisply and cleanly, without a trace of showiness.

That breakthrough has been reissued as part of a 35-disc box set of his complete recordings on the RCA label (and some on Columbia), made in the first three decades of his career. It was released last year, just four months after he died, that February, of pancreatic cancer. The collection offers a rich variety of solo pieces, chamber works and concertos by Beethoven, Berio, Chopin, Mozart, Takemitsu, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and more — in probing, lucid, often exhilarating performances. Some of these recordings I didn’t know; others I’d not listened to in years. The set has rekindled strong memories of Peter — as I came to know him — and his great artistry, and the intersection of our lives and professions.

As his recordings kept coming out after that “Goldberg” Variations, I bought them eagerly and followed Peter’s journey. There was his spacious, searching yet beguilingly playful account of Schubert’s late, lengthy Sonata No. 18 in G, recorded during the same sessions as the Bach but released in 1966. There were exciting collaborations with Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bartok’s First and Third Piano Concertos and Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, a piece that clobbered me at the time. That 1968 Schoenberg album included the Five Piano Pieces (Op. 23). Peter’s compelling performance inspired me to learn that work, which I eventually did, with enormous effort, for my senior recital in college.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Rudolf Serkin was a childhood hero to me, and I will always cherish his formidable artistry. But in my early 20s a generational shift was coaxing me toward solidarity with his son. Peter seemed like the unintimidated pianist-leader of our emerging generation, claiming classical music on his own terms. I wanted to meet him, to hang out. I had a hunch we could become friends.

We didn’t meet, though, until the summer of 1987, just weeks before he turned 40. By then I was a freelance critic for The Boston Globe and he was teaching young artists at the Tanglewood Music Center. He was known to be interview-shy, burned by the snide reactions of critics during the 1970s, when he sported a ponytail and stringy goatee; often performed wearing Nehru shirts and love beads; and disdained the touring virtuoso circuit, which he compared to a “monkey doing his trained act with the same pieces over and over.”

In 1973, he and three like-minded young musicians had founded Tashi, an ensemble that focused on contemporary music. These adventurous players gave dozens of mesmerizing performances and made a top-selling recording of their signature piece, Messiaen’s mystical “Quartet for the End of Time.”

Peter wanted to shake up classical music, which he felt was far too beholden to old repertory and traditional protocols. Still, it was hard for him to shrug off being seen as “the counterculture’s reluctant envoy to the straight concert world,” as the critic Donal Henahan put it in a 1973 profile in The New York Times. And he was sick of being asked about his complicated relationship with his father.

I knew all this going into our interview and was a little wary. But from the moment we met, I felt at ease. We sat on the grass under the sun on the grounds of Tanglewood and talked for a couple of hours about everything: his memories of how intensely he experienced music as a child; his travels to India, Thailand and Mexico in his early 20s, when, for a while, he stopped performing and even practicing to “find out who I am without it”; the satisfaction he was deriving that summer from coaching a fresh generation of musicians who seemed to share his innate curiosity about new music; and his excitement over an ambitious project he was planning, to take on tour a program of 11 works newly written for him. Learning to deal with difficult fathers came up, too. Over the following week at Tanglewood, we did hang out — which was, as we would have said back then, really cool.

Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

By that point, though, our relationship was defined and, to some extent, constrained by our respective roles as performer and critic. (Actually, I was still actively performing then, and Peter wanted to know all about my work and hear some concert recordings, which I shared with him.) Had I not been a critic, we might have developed a true friendship; yet had I not been a critic, I might never have met him at all. In a way, I already sensed that I could do more for 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 now and then, exchanged emails, and sometimes found occasions to meet. He enjoyed teaching in the summers at Tanglewood so much that he bought a house in the Berkshires and lived there with his wife and children. He invited me to come visit. Right now I wish I’d accepted. But even he understood, I think, that it was better to keep some measure of professional distance.

People may assume that as a critic, I can’t possibly be objective about an artist I feel warmly toward. Yet just as a novelist can tell a writer friend the truth about problematic aspects of a manuscript, perhaps I, who admired Peter’s playing so much, was able to see when his take on a piece didn’t quite click.

For example, the new collection includes three albums of Chopin works recorded between 1978 and 1981, when Peter was looking afresh at a composer he was not known for performing. He brought out the ruminative, poetic elements of the music, even in mazurkas and waltzes that might seem lithe on the surface. His recording of the 14-minute Polonaise-Fantasie, one of Chopin’s most elusive and original scores, is overwhelming. Peter makes the piece seem like a dark, restless, fantastical musing on the deeper heritage of the polonaise, a defining dance of Chopin’s war-torn homeland.

Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie

Sony Classical

But he also applied this pensive approach to the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, with less success. This may have been the closest Chopin came to writing an unabashed virtuoso showpiece. I get what Peter was going for, and it’s fascinating. But the performance is so probing it feels a little grounded. You want the effortless dazzle of a Vladimir Horowitz.

Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

Peter’s extraordinary 1973 recording of Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésu” remains, for me, definitive. This two-hour work, structured as a set of 20 pieces, poses astounding technical challenges as the music shifts between meditative timelessness and exuberant, near-frenzied spirituality, run through with bird calls. Peter took it on tour, playing it complete and from memory, sometimes accompanied with mood-setting lighting. When we spoke that first time he recalled Messiaen hearing him perform the piece. Afterward, the composer was “really too kind,” Peter said: “He told me that I respected the score, but that when I didn’t it was even better.”

The album that may have meant the most to Peter was “… in real time,” featuring works written for him, including several of the 11 scores he played on that program of commissions by Henze, Berio, Takemitsu, Kirchner, Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen and Peter’s childhood friend Peter Lieberson. He makes the swirling busyness and tart sonorities of Berio’s “Feuerklavier” sound like a crackling blaze; he delves below the undulant grace and tenderness of Lieberson’s “Breeze of Delight” to reveal the music’s eerie undertow.

Peter started teaching at the Bard College Conservatory of Music in 2005 and loved working with the inquisitive students the program attracted. Even while enduring debilitating cancer treatments, he tried to keep teaching and playing. In an email to me from April 2019, he wrote of feeling “terrible pain and exhaustion, much worse than last time.” Yet he had forced himself to participate in a performance of Brahms’s C minor Piano Quartet because the cellist, Robert Martin, a close colleague, was playing his final concert as director of the conservatory. “It went well enough,” he wrote. Actually, it’s a profoundly affecting performance, as a video makes clear.

I had arranged to visit him at his home near Bard that August, on my way back to New York after several days covering Tanglewood’s contemporary music festival. But the morning of our planned get-together Peter texted to say he felt wretched. He texted again the next day to tell me how sad he was to have canceled.

“I got a little four-hand music out in case you wanted to play but I guess I’ll bring it back downstairs now for possibly some other time,” he wrote.

There was no other time. We tried to reschedule, but his health was too shaky. The last email he sent me, some three months before he died, was a short reply to a note I’d sent. “Yes, we are good friends,” he said, “and I look forward to seeing you.”

Friends, indeed, in our own way.

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