A Byrd in the hand

May 19, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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A Byrd in the hand…and much more, as pianist Peter Serkin ranged over five centuries to source music for his concert in Sydney’s City Recital Hall last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

And yes, it did include a piece by William Byrd who fell off the perch in 1623.

Peter Serkin

Peter Serkin

Not everybody loves listening to keyboard music that was written before the piano, and even some of its predecessors, were invented. Wanting to take his audience down some of these explorative paths, Serkin offered them the incentive of a return home to Mozart and Beethoven.

While the audience voted with its feet for Serkin’s program by leaving many empty seats, I applaud him for dipping into the unfamiliar. There are surely still gems waiting beneath layers of time.

Serkin is nothing like the stereotype of the contemporary concert pianist. Tall, slim and bespectacled, and dressed in an elegant three-piece lounge suit, he looked more like a senior banker. His mannerisms were atypical too. He often vigorously vibrated his hands and his head while playing, perhaps belatedly trying to conjure up vibrato. When he finished a piece he left his hands hovering over the keys as though there might be more to come, then withdrew them in slow-mo. Since many of his early music selections were largely unknown to most of the audience, this mannerism meant that applause usually made a sputtering start. And he lived in pianissimo land, seemingly reluctant to venture across the border to engage forte. Another unusual feature of his concert was the use of scores and a page-turner for all but the Mozart and Beethoven offerings.

The result was a night of piano playing like no other. Once I accepted the forte limiter and began to look for rewards in pianissimo land, I saw Peter Serkin as masterful. I’ve never heard notes played more softly and still be audible, nor have I been more acutely aware of multiple voices all produced by just two hands, with delicate ornaments running through like tiny glass beads. I doubt you could achieve that degree of control using high impact playing and so I settled in for a quiet, but nonetheless very engaging musical experience.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

The first five pieces were relatively brief, drawing on composers from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They comprised Josquin, Sweelinck, John Bull, John Dowland and William Byrd. Danish composer, Carl Nielsen upped the pace with Theme with Variations Op.40 before interval, but was still restrained in volume by Serkin.

Three surprisingly attractive pieces by Max Reger opened the second half and set us up for the highlight of the concert: the Mozart Rondo in A minor, K511. Here Serkin’s softly-softly interpretation worked magic. It was made to order for this contemplative, so un-Mozartian piece, which sounded more like a prequel to Chopin. Serkin lent on it, coaxed it and caressed it in a standout performance.

I would have been happy to leave the concert there, still enchanted by the Mozart, but there was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E, Op 109 to come.

Expecting a crisp attack I was left wanting, and although there were some memorable moments in the slow movement, the crescendos lacked the fire power essential to producing the contrasting colours called for in this sonata.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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