March 9, 2007
Volume 35
Issue 10
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Saturday, Dec 05, 2020



Two pianists at Benaroya: One hits as the other misses by a mile
Two pianists at Benaroya: One hits as the other misses by a mile
As part of the Seattle Symphony's "Distinguished Artists Recital Series," Peter Serkin gave a solo recital at Benaroya Hall last week. It was a disaster. The house was less than 2/3 sold, and of that audience Serkin lost at least 1/3 at the intermission. He performed a program that might work in New York City, where the huge population might contain enough devotees of serialism, twelve-tone music, or what's called these days "modernism" to fill a concert hall. In Seattle, he was met with polite indifference and disgust.

Indeed, most composers have abandoned that method of composition. A few have actually managed to make communicative music in this idiom. They tended to be men of very strong personalities: Stravinsky's ballet 'Agon,' and Berg's great opera 'Wozzeck' are two of the best examples. In the program of this concert, any one of the works of modernism presented might have served as an interesting curiosity amid more communicative pieces. Instead we got heaps of Charles Wuorinen (one of my teachers at Columbia), Messiaen, and Elliott Carter, scarcely relieved by a bit of Bach and a curiously tacked-on work of Brahms!

While playing all this music well enough, even at times very well, Serkin seemed totally cerebral, even prissy in his pinstripe suit and straight-backed immobility. The opening "Bagatelle" by Wuorinen seemed to communicate no feeling at all, just a sort of mathematical working out of some cerebral exercise. I hated it. The more interesting 'Little Sketches of Birds' by Messiaen suffered from some superficial similarities to the Wuorinen. By itself I think I would have enjoyed it, but here it seemed just more of Serkin's humorless self-involvement. The Bach "Capriccio on the departure of his most beloved brother" seemed out of place except that it may have been Serkin saying, "See, Bach wrote chromaticisms, which smack of the atonal!"

After intermission, Elliott Carter's 'Intermittences,' written especially for Peter Serkin, continued in the "moderism' vein. While it was too much of the same thing, I did actually sorta, kinda enjoy it, for it seemed to have more character, even I could not say what that character was! The final work, Brahms' 'Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G.F. Handel,' was actually pretty impressive, at least technically.

If I never bother to see Peter Serkin again, it will be because I don't trust him to reach me emotionally. And I don't trust him to program a compelling series of works that make some sense together.

Pianist John Lill performed all five of Beethoven's piano concerti with the Seattle Symphony. My partner and I caught the evening in which he played numbers four and five. One could go on about the myriad ways in which this performance gave delight. There was not a single element amiss (other than one serious bobble by one of the horns).

Mr. Lill is a big, very distinguished looking man with very long fingers. While relatively restrained in manner, he exuded warmth and power, both of which came across in his playing. Add to the mix a complete technical mastery and a musical wisdom that seemed to make all the right choices.

I confess that I approached this evening with a certain fear that I had heard these works perhaps too many times. The 'Piano Concerto No. 5' (the "Emperor") especially can too often sound over-blown and heavy. Even though there were no startling revelations in Lill's performance, he gave us all the grandeur it can conjure and at the same time a fresh, breathing quality that it so often lacks.

Lill's tone was always attractive, even when he varied from extremely soft to very loud; in fact his superb use of dynamics was one source of the fresh quality in his playing. Even in the powerhouse moments if the "Emperor," there were moments of repose and judicious use of rubato (bending the tempo for expressiveness).

I was especially impressed with the pianist's ability to be heard clearly, even in the biggest orchestral tutti's. He made the large auditorium ring with musical intention, and appeared at all times in complete agreement with Maestro Schwarz' baton. Indeed, Schwarz as usual was at his best when assisting the soloist.

The more poetic, introspective "Piano Concerto No. 4" was no less impressive. In short, this whole evening could hardly have been more satisfying.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at

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