A Pianist’s Final Message: Overlooked Works by a Son of Bach

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Peter Serkin had a lifelong fascination with the piano works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Perhaps he saw in him a kindred spirit. Like Mr. Serkin, whose father was the great pianist Rudolf Serkin, C.P.E. was the son of a famous musician: Johann Sebastian Bach.

Mr. Serkin especially loved the six books of sonatas, rondos and fantasias — 37 pieces in all — that Emanuel Bach, as he was often known, collected and published for “Kenner und Liebhaber” (“Connoisseurs and Amateurs”), as the volumes were titled.

That these pieces were so little known baffled Mr. Serkin. During the 18th century, if you mentioned Bach, most people assumed you were referring to Emanuel (1714-88), whose renown in that period eclipsed that of his father (1685-1750). The younger Bach was especially known for his elegant, inventive keyboard works, which include some 150 sonatas.

While occasionally Mr. Serkin would perform Emanuel Bach’s works in recital, he mostly played them for himself and recorded some pieces on his private label, which used inexpensive equipment and which he flippantly called Lousy Sound Discs.

But over eight days in March 2018, Mr. Serkin sat down and recorded the complete “Kenner und Liebhaber,” nearly five hours of music. Newly released by Vivace Records, it was his final recording project before he died in January, at 72, of pancreatic cancer.

The sessions came during a period when Mr. Serkin thought — or dared to hope — that his cancer was in remission. He had endured a grueling year of treatments and surgery, but had come through, felt better, and started performing again. Within a year, though, his cancer returned.

In a recent interview, Marty Krystall, a friend of Mr. Serkin and Vivace’s founder, said that even as Mr. Serkin’s health deteriorated, he remained immersed in the intricate editing of these Bach discs, right into the final week of his life.

“Peter was always a workaholic,” Mr. Krystall said. “I never saw anybody with that kind of stamina.”

I should have known these remarkable pieces, but for the most part I didn’t. It makes sense that this lesser-known repertory appealed to Mr. Serkin. His exploratory streak — which drew him to composers of our time, such as Wolpe, Messiaen, Takemitsu and Lieberson — was also activated by the neglected Emanuel Bach, who was, like those contemporary masters, a searching composer who needed an advocate.

Mr. Serkin’s interest in this Bach began early in his career, when he read Emanuel’s influential treatise “On the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments.” Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms all “loved and had keen interest in C.P.E. Bach’s music,” Mr. Serkin adds in the recording’s liner notes. These recordings have the potential to spread the word today.

Bach was at the forefront of writing three-movement sonatas, most of them following the fast-slow-fast format that took hold. If the renown he enjoyed during his lifetime did not carry over into the 20th century, that may have been because he was perceived as a transitional figure. He came of age at the end of the Baroque period and lived into the Classical age of Haydn and Mozart. When you bridge eras, it’s easy to slip into the divide. But the “Kenner und Liebhaber” works demonstrate Bach embracing the stylistic flux of his time with authority — and a touch of the maverick.

I was hooked by the very first track of the first disc: the Prestissimo movement of Sonata I in C (Book One). Nodding to the keyboard toccatas of Bach’s father, the piece is like a spiraling stream of notes, tossed between the hands. But it keeps veering off impulsively into new directions and shifting into unexpected harmonic patches. Mr. Serkin plays with pristine clarity, but not overly so. Some passages are rich with milky colorings. And there are hurtling, jagged moments when Mr. Serkin has the music sounding almost improvised.

The Rondo II in E (Book Four) is another gem, a pensive, quizzical piece with a flowing right-hand line that is wistfully yet slyly decorous. It qualifies, the musicologist Peter Laki writes in the liner notes, as one of Bach’s “modulating rondos.” There are moments when it’s impossible to guess where the music is heading.

Mr. Laki writes that Bach was known as the father of the “empfindsamer Stil” (“sensitive style”), exemplified by the tender, soft-spoken an Andante of Sonata III in B minor (Book One), a short movement that serves, in effect, as a transition to the sonata’s sublime finale.

The Fantasia II in C (Book Six) has the impish playfulness of a Haydn finale, complete with a penchant for sudden stops and suspenseful pauses. Yet in less than five minutes, the piece lives up to its title, with fantastical episodes, sometimes dark-hued and ominous. Mr. Serkin brings crispness and comedic flair to his scintillating account.

Day after day during the recording sessions, he did take after take, hour after hour. It was Mr. Krystall who finally starting insisting on regular breaks. Death hovered over the sessions in more ways than one. The day before Mr. Serkin began work, his good friend Buell Neidlinger, a bassist and cellist who played with both jazz giants and classical artists, died at 82 of a heart attack.

A mentor to Mr. Serkin, he was to have taken part in the recording project, offering regular feedback. “Peter was in tears,” Mr. Krystall said. “Just beside himself.” The album is dedicated to Mr. Neidlinger.

Four months before he died, Mr. Serkin wrote to me with regrets about putting off a meeting we had planned. Even on bad days, he added, “I am smiling more than usually, more genuinely, and more since being sick, I think.” He was listening to music, Thomas Tallis and Stravinsky, and “looking at Bach.”

That, of course, included Emanuel. The day before he died, he sent his last editing requests to Mr. Krystall, along with a mailing list of friends he wanted the recording sent to. He asked for a note to be included in the packages: “In affectionate friendship and with love — Peter.”

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NYT > Arts > Music


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