Rudolf Serkin: Early and Unpublished Recordings = BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”; BUSONI: Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op. 36a: Presto and Andante con moto; SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 – Adolf Busch, violin/ Rudolf Serkin, piano/ London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Julius Harrison – Pristine Audio PAKM 077, 72:21 [pristineclassical.com] ****:

Much as this year tends to be dominated by Leonard Bernstein retrospectives, this reviewer has distinct memories of having met Bohemian-American pianist Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) in Atlanta directly after his recital of the last three Beethoven piano sonatas. I no less recall how impressed I had been with the fierce version of the Beethoven Chorale Fantasy that he and Bernstein had made together as a complement to their rendition of the C minor Concerto. Serkin, moreover, delivered my first LP “Appassionata” as part of his 1963 CBS LP (ML 5881) of three Beethoven sonatas.  Thus, when Mark Obert-Thorn’s latest excursion into Serkin’s recorded history arrived, I approached the 3 November 1936 version with eager anticipation.

Typically, Serkin executes the F minor Sonata No. 23 (1804) as an expression of heroic, Promethean temperament. Curiously, the piece opens with figures—in the same key—from his Op. 2, No. 1 Sonata, but the similarity dissipates quickly, given the range of expression and the dynamic contrasts Beethoven demands. The motto figure in dotted rhythm rises through the tonic key to a glittery trill, then repeats a semitone higher in a Neapolitan (flatted second) mode. Beethoven’s sense of economic compression keeps the materials, even the secondary theme in A-flat, close to the tenor of the opening, even while exploding to the full diapason of the keyboard, from the high treble to the somber bass five octaves away. The “fate” motif, of course, allows a percussionist like Serkin to simulate the full orchestra before the coda’s mumbling tremolo recedes into cosmic space.  I find Serkin’s Andante con moto—a theme and four variations— lyrically expressive, unmannered, direct, and eminently songful. But the trumpet soon sounds, in the manner of a diminished 7th chord’s desire to become Shelley’s “trumpet of prophecy.” Serkin supercharges the flying 16ths that comprise a virtual moto perpetuo and generate a tense instability. The secondary theme seems a variant of the first figure, set in C minor, and it proceeds to a wild, czardas Presto, whose sheer momentum threatens to throw Serkin’s fingers off their knuckles. Even after 80 years, this rousing performance testifies to a demonic talent on both sides of the page.

Serkin’s happy relationship, musical and personal, with German violist-conductor Adolf Busch (1891-1952) formed part of my discussion with Serkin back in Atlanta.  Let me add that we also spoke about Max Reger’s Concerto in F minor, which Serkin and Mitropoulos premiered for the Minneapolis audience, and which success compelled them to repeat the last movement. Both Serkin and Busch revered the music and personality of Ferruccio Busoni, and they had prepared the 1901 E minor Sonata for the composer as early as 1921.  The broadcast from WABC (19 January 1940) comes from the Library of Congress, and joins the famed duo near the end of the Presto movement. Busch’s violin tone, highly reminiscent of that of Joseph Szigeti in its nasal, piercing, reedy character, does inflect some sense of Busoni’s idiosyncratic lyricism. The extended Andante con moto movement—captured in its entirety—presents a series of variations on a Bach chorale, Wie wohl ist mir. We might recall that Clara Haskil and Joseph Szigeti were fond of this sonata for their recital programs. Often, the arrangement and classical refinement of the variants reflects as much of Beethoven as of Bach, the latter especially in the fugal variation that the Busch-Serkin duo manages to play as if it were an improvisation.

Serkin had been contracted to record the Schumann Concerto (19 November 1936) with conductor Sir Hamilton Harty, which surely would have been explosively compelling.  Composer Julius Harrison (1885-1963) stepped in for the ailing Harty, and together, he and Serkin produce an alternately lyric and driven, “live” performance, buttressed by the London Philharmonic, which Beecham and Sargent had honed into Britain’s finest orchestra.  In his accompanying notes, Tully Potter mentions the contribution of oboe virtuoso Leon Goossens. We must pay attention to the LPO tympani section, as well. In spite of Serkin’s repute for colossal, even over-wrought, piano dynamism, there occur many moments of nothing less than magical intimacy in this performance, augmented by those passages in which the demon presides.  The restored sound of these shellacs proves exemplary.

—Gary Lemco