Peter Serkin's intent during his performance last night in Shriver Hall of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.23 ("Appassionata") seemed to be that of showing how badly the piece could be played. He succeeded brilliantly.
So many things were wrong with this "Appassionata" that it is impossible to enumerate all of them. The most important, however, was that the pianist never established a sense of the sonata's architecture -- its musical line, if you will. (In fact, it seems safe to say that Serkin wouldn't know what a line was even if he was hung out to dry.)
There was, for example, the matter of tempos. Most pianists today take about 22-24 minutes for the "Appassionata." Even when Serkin's famous father, Rudolf, was in his 80s his performances never took as many as 25. His son, however, took about 30 minutes. Save for the idiosyncratic Glenn Gould recording, last night's performance may have been the slowest in history. At such slow speed, the piece collapses of its own weight. It was like a blowup of a painting by Seurat -- one, however, in which the dots didn't connect and in which the familiar image we expected to see looked instead as if it were an ink blot in a Rorschach test.
Perhaps the pianist was merely having a bad dream or, perhaps, suffering a flashback caused by an unfortunate libation consumed during his days in the counterculture. For after playing the "Appassionata's" final movement at the speed at which paint dries, Serkin then left his listeners with whiplash by plunging into the coda at a conventional tempo.
On the second half of the program, the pianist's performance of Brahms' "Handel Variations" suggested that he had returned, if not to earth, at least to a planet in orbit around the sun. The reason may have been the nature of the Brahms "Handel" itself. The much shorter musical periods comprised by 25 variations and a fugue are harder to lead astray than longer sonata movements. In any case, the pianist appeared to play the Brahms with genuine sincerity.
And if variation did not follow variation with the logic one likes to hear, at least the piece was not distorted beyond recognition.
Serkin's recital included three pieces by Stefan Wolpe, a composer whose music the pianist has consistently championed.
The most substantial was Wolpe's three-movement Toccata from 1941. Though it is at least twice as long and about one tenth as interesting, Wolpe's Toccata owes a huge debt to Ferruccio Busoni's work of the same name. The pianist performed this piece with seriousness and conviction missing from his Beethoven.