Remembering Peter Serkin

I was sad to hear that one of the great master pianists has passed, one who understood as all too few performers of his stature do, that a deep commitment to the music of our time is perfectly consistent with the most profound relationship with the masterpieces of the past. I’m grateful for Peter Serkin’s Bach, but also for his Carter and Wuorinen and Wolpe and Lieberson and more.

The first time I heard the late Peter Serkin was in Cleveland’s Severance Hall in 1976. Charles Wuorinen had written a piece for Tashi, the mixed chamber ensemble that I believe Serkin and his colleagues had put together to play Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Wuorinen made a version of his piece (also called Tashi) for the ensemble and orchestra, and I heard the premiere, with the composer conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. Many years passed before I heard him again, but each time was memorable: Brahms 2nd with the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw in Carnegie Hall; the Goldberg Variations at a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert; a program of short contemporary pieces, again for PCMS; and a Tanglewood performance of Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars. I also heard him play some Peter Lieberson at a benefit event for Philadelphia’s Network for New Music. This was the occasion for a modest epiphany on my part. I had performed on the piano in the hall where the benefit took place, and I felt it was not such a great instrument. Hearing Serkin play it, I knew the piano was just fine. The problem had been the pianist.

Serkin playing a short piece by one of the contemporary composers he championed, Toru Takemitsu:

and a touching rendition of a Bach invention on a street in Maine:

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