BBC Legends BBCL 4177-2, 77:44 (Distrib. Koch) ****:
The recital from Royal Festival Hall, London 4 June 1973 features the inimitable Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) in music from the German tradition which he espoused throughout a long career. Serkin included Bach’s E Major Capriccio in his Perpignan appearances with Pablo Casals and in his Lugano recital 22 May 1957 (Ermitage ERM 110), although that reading is broader than his equally buoyed and meditative account here. The recitativo passages cast a long shadow only dispelled by the arrival of the postilion in bright, staccato colors.
A certain clangor, a percussive ting, always plagued Serkin’s sonority, but his articulation of the Reger Variations are clean and loving. In a conversation with Serkin after an Atlanta recital of the last three Beethoven sonatas, we spoke of his playing of the Reger F Minor Concerto, which when performed in Minneapolis under Mitropoulos, had to repeat the last movement for a grateful audience. For the 14 Variations and Fugue, Reger’s owes as many debts (as in Variations10 and 13) to the Brahms Paganini studies as he does to Bach for the original motivic kernel. Often, the stretti and polyphonic devices become top heavy, and I cannot distinguish Reger’s style from that of his contemporary Busoni. At Variation 9 we can detect post-Wagnerian harmony in full regalia. The Fugue, chromatically learned, depends on Bach organ sonority for its craft, but there are moments of airy–albeit contrived–lucidity, in spite of itself.
Serkin’s Beethoven has always had its own persona, tough, sinewy, percussive, volatile, nobly arched. He takes the F Sharp Major as the splicing of two opposed affects: the first, slowly meditative and chromatic; the second movement, a toccata in bright and colossally fleet colors as rendered by a firebrand. I have admired Serkin’s Waldstein Sonata ever since I owned the Columbia LP (ML 4630) years ago. The nervous, wiry application of staccato versus legato impulses becomes a keyboard battleground of epic proportions. In both sonatas, we can hear Serkin’s raucous habit of singing to his manifold accompaniment. The sheer motor energy that signifies Beethoven finds its natural proponent. The lyric passages, moreover, retain their charm and fervent humanity. At seventy years of age, Serkin still breathed fire. To be caught in the throes of Beethoven’s knotty passion with Serkin is still a musical privilege.
— Gary Lemco