Early Serkin – Historic viewpoint of classic works.
BACH: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988; REGER: Clarinet Sonata No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 107 – David Singer, clarinet/ Rudolf Serkin, piano – Pristine Audio PACM 111, 66:53 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Pristine and Andrew Rose combine performances from two distinct periods in the career of pianist Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991), his 1928 recording for Welte-Mignon of the Bach Goldberg Variations and his 1977 collaboration with clarinetist David Singer in a performance of a Reger sonata from the Marlboro Festival in Vermont. The German company of Welte archive of piano rolls consisted in a process for hole-punching paper that would record the sound impressions of a keyboard attached to the system, which could reproduce those impressions as “live” on a contemporary instrument. Serkin had to limit his approach to realizing the Aria, 30 Variations and Quodlibet of the Goldberg opus to 12-minute intervals, omitting repeats and variations 6-8.
There are virtues to be gleaned in Serkin’s performance, not the least of which lie in his clean articulation, the strength of his trills, and the sheer fluidity of motion. The natural elan of the performance brings great credit to Serkin’s approach and its flexibility in mood and tempo. The canons at the ever-increasing intervals each has its own lyrical content beyond the exploitation of polyphony in itself. The 25-year-old Serkin has an impressive arsenal of digital prowess, and his capacity for cantabile and legato proves no less potent than his quick passages in controlled percussion. Several of the variants, like No. 10, “Fughetta,” play like inventions or Baroque etudes. The nice balance of the hands Serkin maintains to clarify Bach’s motions in unison or contrary harmony. Typically, Serkin’s tempos are fast, but he does not smear Bach’s lines. Serkin appeals to our sense of drama with his sudden onrush of Bach’s wicked texture in Variation 14, only to pull back the momentum for a studied realization of the Canone alla Quinta, Andante. Variation 16 presents us with a French Overture, processional at first, but then breaking out into a festive mood that carries over into the doublings at Variation 17. The whirlwind of Variation 20 should verify Serkin’s credentials as a virtuoso who could compete for speed and power with anything the Glenn Gould advocates could boast. The last group of variants at the Canone alla Nona onward assume their ineluctable impetus, moving with impressive bravura to the confrontation between the “timeless,” polyphonic procedures and the “timely” wit of the rustic Quodlibet, which we must regret suffers a loss of some humor in this truncated realization. Serkin lingers over the reappearance of the wonderful Aria that frames this colossal conception, and its last chords decay slowly enough for us to have savored the glittering history of this document.
The disc’s liner notes well document the strong relation between Serkin, the Busch family, and the composer Max Reger (1873-1916), a performance tradition that extends back to 1909, when Adolf Busch played the Reger Violin Concerto with piano accompaniment from brother Fritz Busch. The Sonata in B-flat Major for Clarinet (1907) easily pays homage to Brahms, but its innovative, even discordant, harmony takes it far afield of the Brahms ethos, combining with procedures clearly indebted to Bach. The seriousness of tone keeps the music from achieving any sense of warm mirth, and so the music retains an academic cast despite the attraction of clarinetist Singer’s tone, here captured in the concert of 10 July 1977. The work lasts 30 minutes in performance; and while Reger strives for lightness and concise, color appeal, and the work maintains a sense of continuity through its opening phrases, that serve as a fixed idea in various guises. The intimacy that Singer and Serkin project adds to more than a passing interest in the music, though I confess that rarely does Reger charm my love for melody. The second movement gives us an athletic Vivace with a mournful middle section. Reger’s texture becomes more transparent in the Adagio, its opening structured on two ascending perfect fourths in quarter notes. The mood feels rhapsodic and meditative, and Singer lets us savor the smooth legato of his instrument. The last movement avoids a robust Allegro in favor of a sonata-rondo form Allegretto con grazia, a kind of homage to the Brahms Violin Sonata, Op. 100. The materials from movement three and the first movement motto recur, and the whole possesses a combination of playful rusticity and academic correctness. As a tribute to Rudolf Serkin’s stylistic versatility and catholic taste, this sound document succeeds admirably.