Rudolf Serkin, piano = BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110 – Rudolf Serkin
BBC Legends BBCL 4241-2, 65:44 [Distrib. by Koch] ****:
Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) brings his passionate intuition and searching intellect to his favorite composer, Beethoven, in two recitals from Royal Festival Hall. For the massive Hammerklavier Sonata, we turn to the concert of 13 May 1968, in which we receive one of the most lyrical and least percussive Serkin renditions of this mighty work that I have heard from one of the least “attractive” of keyboard practitioners. While meeting the formidable demands of the Hammerklavier’s breadth and massive polyphony, Serkin manages many effective passages of mercurial and even diaphanous effect, all within the framework of vibrant and convulsive upheaval that comprises most of the first movement and many of the subsequent variations in Adagio sostenuto. As always, the sense that Serkin probes the linear progression for the meaning even as he realizes the notes makes for a spontaneously nervous effect. Tender and exalted visions emanate from both the Adagio and final movement, marked Largo–Allegro risoluto. The various and knotty figurations of the fugue do not present Serkin with so many technical as expressive challenges, trying to maintain a regular pulse through a maze of syncopated metrics. The bare octaves in the Scherzo take on a haunted, even ghoulish sonority, the wind whipping over someone’s grave. By the time we conclude Serkin’s ascent, we might be a companion to Caspar Friedrich’s famous portrait of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Clouds, singular witnesses to a cosmic vision well above a sea of troubles.
The A-flat Sonata (16 June 1971) brings us a more “predictable” Rudolf Serkin, if we mean volatile, percussive, impulsive, and sensitive to Beethoven’s every whim. A deliberate edginess permeates this Op. 110, just as a self-restraining steadiness marks the Hammerklavier. The second movement, Allegro molto, hits us with raw energy, Serkin’s trills and pedal points muscular and penetrating. The elastic fugue in the third movement comes out of a Bach-like serenity and heraldic clarity of enunciation. Again, the hard patina and the direct exposure of Beethoven’s dissonances connects this sonata less with Chopin’s subjective lyricism than with the severe, intellectual bite of Reger and Hindemith. Serkin’s left hand punches out the melodic line with an athletic fervor that might suggest Charles Bronson’s attempt to deliver lines from Hamlet. Does it all work–listen to the performance and judge if the audience enthusiasm is warranted.
— Gary Lemco