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CD Review

The Incomparable Rudolf Serkin

  • Ludwig van Beethoven:
  • Sonata for Piano #30 in E Major, Op. 109
  • Sonata for Piano #31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110
  • Sonata for Piano #32 in C minor, Op. 111
  • Johannes Brahms: Sonata #1 for Piano and Cello in E minor, Op. 38
  • Wolfgang Mozart: Piano Concerto #16 in D Major, K. 451
Rudolf Serkin, piano
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon 474328-2 DDD 2CDs: 66:57, 52:03
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The year 2003 marks the hundredth anniversary of pianist Rudolf Serkin's birth, and DG's "incomparable" collection is both appropriate and well deserved. It is curious, however, that we have heard nothing from Sony Classical on this subject, as it is for its predecessor label (Columbia) that Serkin made his most characteristic recordings. By the time he signed to DG, Serkin was a late septuagenarian, and no longer capable of playing with the technical aplomb he showed in earlier decades. The three Beethoven sonatas presented here were recorded in 1987, and the Mozart concerto comes from a year later! Especially in the case of the Beethoven sonatas, one is forced to label these performances as "good, considering" instead of merely "good."

It would have been wonderful if Serkin had recorded all thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas when he was in his prime, but it was not to be. In the studio, he recorded several that were not released during his lifetime, mostly because he was a perfectionist and intended to improve on his efforts later. The last three sonatas were recorded in stereo for Columbia between 1960 and 1976, and I believe he made even earlier recordings of those three works for the same label. Sony's three-CD set (SM3K 64490) contains the stereo Columbia recordings just alluded to. Therefore, there is no pressing need for DG's live versions from 1987. Granted, they are disappointing only because of the uncertain fingerwork. Interpretively, they are as insightful and intelligent as ever. (It's a classic case of willing spirit and weak flesh.) One could argue that Schnabel – one of the greatest Beethoven pianist of all time – was similarly prone to technical mishaps. The bottom line is that the first CD in this set will appeal more to Serkin specialists than to listeners who are looking for an introduction to his pianism.

Fortunately, the Brahms and the Mozart – both previously released – are quite a bit better. In fact, the Mozart sounds like the work of a rejuvenated Serkin; Mozart has a way of doing that to performers and listeners alike! Abbado has the tendency to be an overwhelming partner, but Serkin's patience and humanity save the day: this is a beautiful, poised reading, more in spite of the conductor than because of him! Serkin and Rostropovich are another "odd couple." Serkin's sobriety rubs up against Rostropovich's effusiveness, but the playing works, although the net effect isn't very Brahmsian.

The two discs come in a digipak with an affectionate and affecting booklet note by Jeremy Siepmann. The Brahms and Mozart have good sound; the Beethoven isn't quite up to house standards. (The original recording was done by Austrian Radio.)

Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle