Peter Serkin’s Final Goldbergs

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 7

Bach’s Goldberg Variations figured prominently in the late Peter Serkin’s career, both in concert and on disc. He recorded it for RCA in 1965 at age 17, and again in 1986 for the defunct Pro Arte label, this time with the repeats. A handful of lucky collectors (including yours truly) own an extremely limited LP edition featuring a live January 1982 performance from Freiburg, Germany, repeats intact. Serkin later set down a repeat-less version for RCA in 1994. Only after Serkin’s death did I learn about this two-CD all-Bach release on the small Vivace label, containing a live Goldbergs from St. Paul, Minnesota on November 12, 2017. Evidently, 1994’s refinements of nuance, touch, and color continued evolving to the end.

For example, the lyrical Variation 13 from 2017 has more flexibility of line along with newfound accents and agogic gestures. No. 11’s cross-handed imitative writing in the relatively forthright 1994 recording now features unpredictable shifts in voicing. Serkin’s briskly articulated 1994 rendition of the virtuosic No. 20 now yields to a gentler, more rarefied approach. On the other hand, the introspective No. 15 (the minor-key canon at the fifth) gains animation and freedom in front of an audience. The concluding Variation 30 Quodlibet grows harder-hitting and giddier as the multiple themes compete for attention.

Serkin observes a handful of repeats (the Aria, plus variations 2, 5, 10, 16, 19, and 22), varying his phrasing and embellishments on the second-go-rounds. It adds up to a more exploratory, creative, and open-ended interpretation, more process than product oriented, one might say. Much as I appreciate the unity, cumulative scope, and warm reserve of the Pro Arte Goldbergs, I find this valedictory reading far more idiosyncratic and fascinating.

The C minor Suite originally was intended for a lute-cembalo, a keyboard instrument where a lute-like quill mechanism plucked the strings. Serkin’s multi-leveled detaché touch manages to replicate that sonority on the concert grand, while conveying an essentially vocal orientation in this live March 2018 performance from Bard College.

Serkin also leaves his personal stamp on an E minor Partita from an undated Louisville, Kentucky concert. He allows himself ruminating leeway in the Toccata’s introduction, setting the stage for the leisurely unfolding fugue and comparably expansive Allemande to come. By playing the Corrente and the Gavotta in the same tempo, Serkin uses these movements to frame the Air and the Sarabande. In this context, the pianist’s understated Gigue functions like a recessional rather than a curt ending. The archival sonics vary, from bright and strident in the Partita and mellow and slightly diffuse in the Goldbergs to well-nigh ideal in the Suite.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Goldberg Variations: Perahia (Sony); Gould (Sony, 1955 and 1981 versions), Partita No. 6: Perahia (Sony); Hewitt (Hyperion, 2018 version)

  • BACH, J.S.:
    Suite in C minor BWV 997; Partita No. 6 in E minor BWV 830; Goldberg Variations BWV 988
  • Peter Serkin (piano)

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