Great to be reminded of the stature of
Rudolf Serkin’s Beethoven. In many ways the first sonata we hear, the
‘Moonlight’, presents an overview of Serkin’s way. The repose of the famous
first movement exemplifies his tender side (notwithstanding a hint of over-projection
of the melody). It is the finale that shows us Serkin’s wild side. It reminded
me of Pollini – live – furiously fast yet every note audible, with accents like
flashes of lightning. This is great Beethoven playing, interpretatively so
assured with a feel of the virtuoso ... especially towards the end. There are
other versions by Serkin available, of course (1941 and 1962). This one was
previously unissued on CD and demands a place in every pianophile’s collection.
Concentration is the key-word for the Pathétique’s
introduction, a dark lead-in to an allegro (di molto e con brio) that
houses some superb dialogues between voices. Sforzandi verge on the violent –
this is no comfortable listen. Serkin’s way with ‘dialogues’ is again evident
in the famous slow movement, but in other places in this movement there are
touches of awkwardness – the very first notes seem rather ‘pushed’, rather
forced. Much better is the brisk finale. Serkin keeps total control - no
wallowing - and there is real excitement towards the close. Recording quality
for this sonata as all the others is typical of CBS, slightly dry, to my ears,
yet detailed. Transfers (Graham Newton) are excellently managed, with hiss left
in that one very quickly attunes to.
The Appassionata (from Columbia
MS5164) is notable not only for its concentration but for its truly explosive
nature. To effect this, Serkin ensures dynamic contrasts are great. The opening
is supremely hushed to ensure maximum contrast. This is electric playing.
Cascades of notes there may be, but each note within them has its own life, its
own carefully-considered weight. Interestingly, the second movement variations
are unsettled from the start. Clearly there is a real thinker at the helm here.
Everything, every note, is carefully placed within the whole. What is usually a
moment of consolation (3’20 here) is here only partially so, Serkin taking into
consideration the surroundings. Whether one agrees with Serkin’s take or not,
one has to admire his directional thought and unity of conception.
Typical of the CBS recording are the
steely accents that herald the opening of the whirlwind finale. The coda acts
as the true crown of the work, although in sound terms it emerges as a little
brittle and dry. There appears to be a scuff of some kind on the source
material around 2’40 onwards.
Finally on CD1, the Les adieux.
Here contrast between slow introduction and allegro is very marked indeed. This
truly is an Adagio (it appears somewhat distanced, too); the Allegro bursts
forth unstoppably. Be warned, though - this is a more volatile farewell than
most. In keeping with the unwillingness to lapse into any sort of
sentimentality, the slow movement aches without the milk; the finale positively
sparkles. Serkin’s fingerwork in this tricky movement is beyond reproach.
CD2 opens with the amazingly even
chording of the opening of the Waldstein. If Barenboim (HMV) remains my
firm favourite here, Serkin is not far behind. True, the occasional wrong note
creeps in (around 7'14), but given this is in the context of masterly Beethoven
playing it hardly matters. The sotto voce mystery of the brief slow movement
leads absolutely magically into the tremendous buzzing energy of the finale.
This appears to be one of only two ‘Waldstein’s Serkin recorded (the other from
Serkin clearly takes a less impressionist view
of the opening of Op. 109 than does Schnabel (Naxos: see my review).
There is a clear sense of the grand with Serkin in this first
of his three versions of this sonata (the others hailing from
1976 and 1987), though, with huge fortes. I like Serkin’s accuracy
in the Prestissimo. Maybe there is a touch of the literal in the
heavenly finale, or perhaps that is deliberate avoidance of an
ascent to the heavens. This is a more resolute reading than most,
stabbing accents almost violent (around 6’55) and if the final
restatement of the movements opening is lovely, it is clearly
not of a mystical bent.
The Fantasy and the Op. 78 Sonata
were issued together (Columbia ML4128) and there exist alternative Serkins of
both; 1970 and 1973 respectively. The Fantasy is a strange piece, and Serkin’s
harsh sfs seem out of place. A surface scuff is audible also. Yet the
moments of simplicity work really well: around 7’30-40, for example.
Finally, the F sharp Sonata, in a tender,
affectionate performance of the first movement. The brief finale (2’29) is
impressive technically if not quite as cheeky as it could be.
A veritable treasure trove, then.