Praga renews the sound of Rudolf Serkin’s 1962 recordings of Mozart and Bartok.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K 595; Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414; BARTOK: Piano Concerto No. 1, Sz. 83 – Rudolf Serkin, piano/ Philadelphia Orch./ Eugene Ormandy (K. 495)/ Marlboro Festival/ Alexander Schneider (K. 414)/ Columbia Sym. Orch./ George Szell (Bartok) – Praga Digitals PRD 250 350, 79:50 (12/9/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Pianist Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) for many years stood as one of the more prolific Mozart interpreters on record, imparting to Mozart a clear, robust line not so troubled by his percussive wont in Beethoven. His version of the 1790 Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major with Eugene Ormandy (28 January 1962) enjoys a muscular sonority that bespeaks the virility in late Mozart. The Philadelphia Orchestra personnel, especially the woodwinds, prided themselves on the liquid articulation of the parts as they integrate with the fabulous Philadelphia string sound. In the opening Allegro’s minor-key secondary subject, Serkin brings out its expressive power without cloying or breaking the elastic fluidity of his line. Without trumpet and tympani, the texture in Mozart’s last piano concerto carries a paradoxical sense of weight, optimistic and valedictory. The lovely E-flat Major Larghetto – which Serkin plays with patrician serenity – introduces a tune at bar 65 that recurs in the last movement Allegretto. The last pages, ripe with the piano against strings, winds, and horns, project musical bliss. The final movement carries a theme half-Viennese and half ingenuous music-box. The power of the Philadelphia strings and woodwinds – particularly the bassoon and clarinet parts – convince us that some real sublimity occurs here.  If any composer can refine Serkin’s hard patina into liquid, Mozart can.  The cadenzas of the two outside movements, by Mozart himself, find sympathy and song in Serkin’s athletic realization.

The 1782 Piano Concerto No. 12 (rec. October 1962 at the Marlboro Festival) projects a “militant” gait somewhat in tandem with his recently successful opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio.  With conductor Alexander Schneider (1908-1993), Serkin makes this concerto exactly what the composer deemed “a happy medium between too heavy and too light…brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural without being insipid.”  The music, conceived to impress the Viennese public, abounds with melody, yet remains within the taste of chamber music in intimacy and reflection. Mozart grew quite fond of the concerto as a pedagogical device, composing two sets of cadenzas for it. In the course of Serkin’s Allegro, we can hear the pianist’s singing along with his digital phrasing, often to the chagrin of recording engineers.  [So Gould and Jarrett are not the only ones who do that…Ed.] The charming Andante borrows a tune from one of Johann Christian Bach’s overtures: coincidentally, J.C. Bach had been Mozart’s mentor and had died 1 January 1782. Whatever moment of valediction passes as a memorial in the second movement dissipates in the course of the concluding Rondo – Allegro.  This movement likely serves as an alternative to the Rondo in A that Mozart had already conceived but published separately. This rondo bubbles with delight and sophisticated charm, with Serkin and Schneider’s forces in harmonious, playful balance.  The cadenza by Ferruccio Busoni assets Serkin’s prowess once more, if the upcoming Bartok concerto proves insufficient of his raw dexterity.

The 1926 Bartok Concerto No. 1 (rec. 5-6 April 1962) purports to be in e, but that key serves only as an occasional center of gravity in the course of the first movement Allegro moderato’s leaps and pounding figurations.   The brass and snare drum have their own work cut out for them, as does George Szell, who did not come to non-traditional rhythmic divisions easily.  Whatever lyricism arises in the course of the concerto does not emanate from the keyboard. Serkin’s part instead seeks out new tone clusters and various incentive to rhythmic propulsion, many of them brittle and polyphonic. The middle movement poses a dialogue between Serkin and the percussion instruments, a precursor for the Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion.  In the dense central section, we hear four different keys in the woodwinds over Serkin’s ostinato.  The complexity means to rival Stravinsky’s Le Sacre for density of effect. The last movement Allegro molto asserts pure aggression, sometimes in the manner of raucous circus music. The demands on the soloist’s hands and wrists can be demonic, especially given the tempo that Serkin and Szell establish.  For pure bravura in “modern” music, this collaboration well bears the test of time!

—Gary Lemco