For music lovers who have been following the progress of pianist Peter Serkin through the past half-century, the oddness of his Aug. 16 recital should not have come as a surprise. Much of his career has been devoted to rattling contented listeners out of their comfort zone. Decades have passed since he traded in his hippie beads for a nicely tailored suit, but his musical inclinations still point toward the outré. Many listeners within earshot of my seat in St. Francis Auditorium voiced perplexity or displeasure when the concert ended. I understood.
The first half of the hour-plus midday recital was given over to pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries, long before the piano existed as an instrument, even in its earliest forms. The opening number was Charles Wuorinen’s transcription of the mid-Renaissance motet Ave Christe immolate. (Standard choral editions ascribed the piece to Josquin, but most musicological opinion has shifted to re-attribute it to the Netherlandish composer Noel Bauldeweyn, whose ghost might have appreciated at least a nod in the program notes.) Rather than reflect his standing as a fearsome modernist, Wuorinen’s transcriptions of early music (of which there are a good many) are basically piano reductions, sometimes with lines moved an octave higher or lower than in the original composition, but otherwise what anybody would play if they were reading a choral score at the keyboard. In this case, it meant five minutes of slowly unrolling four-part Renaissance counterpoint. Maybe it is the sort of exercise Serkin would use to achieve a state of musical purity when beginning a practice session, and he might imagine it would serve the same purpose for his audience at the outset of a concert. I think it more likely that it would simply confuse them and make them edgy because it is so unanticipated. In any case, before beginning the piece, he had already sat at the keyboard in silent meditation for what seemed a very long time; and he would do so afresh before most of the succeeding pieces.
There followed Sweelinck’s Capriccio in A minor, again slow, this time with more chromatic creeping — and, again, probably misattributed. Then arrived two pieces by John Bull from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a huge repository of mostly British music compiled in the second decade of the 17th century. The more interesting was his Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La, a tour-de-force of a fantasia in which counterpoint weaves around articulations of the hexachord (a six-note scale segment), ascending and then descending, its iterations anchored on 12 successive notes (first on G, then on A, and so on), before concluding in five go-rounds rising from and falling to G, with each of these last five enlivened by a distinct rhythmic accompaniment. It may have been written as a demonstration piece for an experimental harpsichord with 19 notes to the octave. Anyway, this is a work with a hidden agenda, and I don’t think the program note would have done any harm by revealing some of the secrets of what might otherwise sound like just a lot of bizarre notes. A little Gigge by Bull, apparently a musical self-portrait, served as punctuation, at least providing an up-tempo moment in what was by then a ponderously slow playlist. More slow motion followed via Dowland’s Pavana lachrymae, in a keyboard arrangement by William Byrd, played with twee delicacy on the massive Steinway; and finally a quick finish to the set with a Lavolta by Byrd himself. One may like all of these pieces and yet find that they add up to a mystifying way to launch a piano recital.
From Reger came three rarely played selections from Aus meinem Tagebuch, a collection of short movements that display a wry sense of humor and his usual harmonic somersaults and sidesteps. Following all this obscurity, Serkin played a familiar masterwork — Beethoven’s Sonata in E major (Op. 109) — in an unaccustomed interpretation. The opening was voiced strangely, such that the first few measures sounded not soft (piano) and sweet (dolce), as marked, but frankly rattletrap. I have no idea what that was about, nor could I imagine that, in the second movement, Beethoven’s marking the left-hand part ben marcato (strongly accented) was intended to mean that it should completely overpower the right hand (the figuration of which, when it could be heard at all, was in no way a model of clarity). The theme of the third-movement variations was glacially slow. Serkin clearly does not believe that the composer’s bilingual markings of Gesangvoll and cantabile (both meaning “songful”) have anything to do with actual singing; at this tempo, a singer would expire by perhaps the fifth measure.
In other concerts, Serkin appeared in ensemble works, in every case at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. On Aug. 14, he joined with the Orion String Quartet to play Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 in a reduction crafted in 1923 by the composer’s pupil Anton Webern. This was one of the arrangements created to bring large works into reach for chamber players at Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. The players would rehearse their pieces to a fare-thee-well and then play them for Schoenberg, who would either green-light them to be programmed or else (very often) send the musicians back to rehearse some more. I suspect this was an interpretation Schoenberg would have remanded for more refinement. Serkin brought considered definition to his part, but the Orions simply gushed forth without much distinction of character, as if the musical choice available to them was either “on” or “off” with no gradation between. That foursome’s performance of Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat major (Op. 127), which concluded that evening, was also rendered in low-resolution, often slipshod in intonation and overall blend. There were things to admire, such as nicely dovetailed rhythmic joints connecting sections near the end of the finale, but when all was said and done, the players operated along a narrow emotional spectrum and fell short of conveying any specific point of view about the piece.
On Aug. 18, Serkin joined with violinist Ida Kavafian for Schumann’s D-minor Violin Sonata. This was a gallant effort to invigorate a piece that can break the hearts of Schumann lovers. It comes from the late point in the composer’s output when inspiration was growing scarce, the wellspring being increasingly stanched by tertiary syphilis. On the whole, the material is too slender to justify the piece’s length, and great expanses resort to sequences and repetition. That said, Kavafian’s tone — rich and often mellow yet projecting confidently throughout her range — infused many pages with warmheartedness, while Serkin held up his side splendidly, plumbing details of pedaling and even extracting some noble mountaineering sounds out of the gummy texture Schumann created in the mixed-meter Trio section of the second-movement scherzo.
Serkin was joined by Julia Hsu on Aug. 21 for a rare outing of Ferruccio Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica in its two-piano version of 1921. The kernel for the work had germinated more than a decade earlier as a fantasy on the incomplete final movement of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, but the composer spent the ensuing years expanding it into a half-hour behemoth that proclaims both his mastery of pianistic resources (he was a notable virtuoso himself) and his obsession with Bachian counterpoint. The resulting piece has a distinct flavor, at once discursive and disciplined, ranging along the late-Baroque paths of chorale prelude and dense fugue, sometimes derived directly from Bach, sometimes striking out in highly original directions. Serkin and Hsu displayed fine ensemble skills, proving themselves insistent missionaries for the piece. They invested a sense of occasion in their performance.
The combination of Serkin and the Dover Quartet presented aesthetic challenges when they teamed up for Dvoˇrák’s A-major Piano Quintet (Op. 81) to conclude the festival’s ultimate concert on Aug. 22. The Dover’s hallmark is sonic luxury, classic finesse, and cultivated polish, whereas Serkin emphasizes arcane insights afforded by momentary curiosities he uncovers in a score. They tend toward the sensual; he favors the cerebral. One heard the tension at the outset; Serkin held back in every repetition of his opening motif, as if stifling sobs that he didn’t want to release into a full-fledged outburst — and this in a piece one would not normally think of as anguished. The Dovers, in contrast, seemed happy to plunge into the piece and let it roll. One felt it also in the Trio section of the Furiant movement. There, the Dovers conveyed real wistfulness, while Serkin seemed a step removed, as if he were offering a carefully crafted dictionary definition of “wistfulness” rather than the thing itself. Neither is necessarily the right or best approach (although I think this particular piece owes its evergreen status to its capacity to charm), and it is to the credit of all the musicians involved that they found as much common ground as they did. Serkin’s performances in the course of his short residency often proved illuminating, but they could sometimes go beyond the austere to seem rather fussy. He came across as a tightly wound performer, his tension yielding a good many dropped notes and flubbed figuration. One’s ultimate impression included regret that he appeared to derive little pleasure from his playing, notwithstanding its overall excellence.
The Dover Quartet had begun its stint at the festival with another work by Dvoˇrák on Aug. 17, when they were joined by violist Steven Tenenbom and cellist Eric Kim in the composer’s A-major String Sextet. Dvoˇrák was thirty-six years old when he wrote this piece and had not yet achieved serious recognition as a composer. The work nonetheless shows impressive compositional technique, and the ensemble was well attuned to its possibilities. Both of the “add-on” musicians coalesced nicely with the Dover’s refined style, with Tenenbom melding seamlessly into the middle of the texture and Kim adding his imposing, rich timbre as second cellist. A memorable highlight was the fifth variation of the finale, in which the two violas and second cello play pizzicato, in counterpoint to flowing 16th-notes from second violin and first cello, all beneath the sustained melody of the first violin — an imaginative bit of ensemble writing that got the sensitive performance it deserved. Eric Kim also augmented the foursome on Aug. 21 for an affecting interpretation of Schubert’s String Quintet, a work that may fairly be described as sacred in the chamber-music canon. The musicians provided an unusually generous overlay of vibrato here, which amplified the Dover’s normal sweetness even beyond its normal level. On a practical plane, it was an effective way to deal with a combination of humidity and stage heat that was stretching some of the instruments’ strings out of plumb — a real challenge in lengthy movements that allow no breaks for retuning.
The Dover Quartet got only one slot in which to appear as the distinctive ensemble it is, with no extra colleagues. They chose another Czech work for its half-hour in the spotlight, Smetana’s Quartet No. 1, performed on Aug. 18. This autobiographical work, titled From My Life, works its way through chapters of happiness and sadness, with the first movement (as the composer explained) depicting “my youthful leanings toward art, the Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning about my future fortune.” The Dovers captured all of that, imbuing the movement with a nervous melancholy that was a splendid match for their essential sound. The second movement, a sort of polka that “brings to my mind the joyful days of youth,” skipped from phrase to phrase with compelling momentum, lightly tipsy through the presumed consumption of Pilsner, with the cello even letting loose a mirthful musical belch toward the end. The third movement — “the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my wife” — was a study in tenderly nuanced whispering. The finale involves “the discovery that I could treat national elements in music” and Smetana’s reveling in this path until the music was stilled by the sudden onset of deafness, symbolized here by a sustained high note from the first violin, an evocation of tinnitus. At that point, the melancholy music from the quartet’s beginning resurfaces, the mystery of its foreboding explained.
This was a top-drawer performance. Certainly the Dover’s interpretation was marked by clearly plotted phrases and carefully sculpted articulation, but the group’s trademark is really its sonority. Shrillness is never allowed to intrude on the violins’ tone — even the “tinnitus note” was invested with a degree of beauty — and the timbres of the two violins are matched to an uncanny degree. Ingratiating as the “nationalist” passages of the fourth movement were, the Dover didn’t possess quite the native spirit of the greatest Czech string quartets — the Talich, the Panocha, the Pražák, or the long-gone, greatly revered Smetana Quartet — but they came close to it. With its burnished patina, its inbred elegance, and its naturalness of musical expression, the Dover is emerging as the most Central European-sounding of American quartets. Of all the music I heard at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival this summer, the Dover Quartet’s performance of Smetana’s First Quartet was hands down the finest. ◀