Archive Reviews

Peter Serkin Playing Charles Wuorinen, A “Thorny” Modernist

The pianist Peter Serkin performing at the 92nd Street Y. Photo by Richard Termine.

The pianist Peter Serkin performing at the 92nd Street Y. Photo by Richard Termine.

Deciphering Harsh Poetry in Modernist Works

Peter Serkin Brings Musical Abstraction to 92nd Street Y

May 12, 2014  |  The New York Times

According to the pianist Peter Serkin, programs “show integrity when there is no attempt to win anyone over at all,” assuming instead that audiences want to hear interesting music. “How can one possibly determine what is ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ to listen to for someone else?” Mr. Serkin said in an interview posted on the 92nd Street Y’s website. “Is Beethoven really easier to listen to than Wolpe or Wuorinen?”

Some of Beethoven’s late works certainly alienated 19th-century listeners, unaccustomed to his daring harmonies and groundbreaking style. And judging by the half-empty hall for Mr. Serkin’s concert at the Y on Saturday evening, which featured three works by Charles Wuorinen on the first half of the program, audiences still haven’t come to terms with the abstruse style of that 75-year-old composer.

It is often remarked that contemporary audiences have a greater appetite and appreciation for Modernist art than for Modernist music. But abstraction can be easier for the eye, than the ear, to absorb. A set of abstract shapes and colors can mesh into a mesmerizing visual whole, but the ear (or certainly my ear) struggles to process a series of notes and gestures that seem to have no connection to one another. Rigorous methods of composition can sometimes result in bafflingly disjointed sounds that resemble a nonsensical sentence.

While listening to the Wuorinen works on Saturday, which included “Adagio,” “Intrada” and “Scherzo,” I recalled Michael Brown’s recent concert of piano music by George Perle, sometimes described as the “poetic voice of atonal composition.” Perle is never going to be my desert island composer, but I appreciated and enjoyed the pieces, which incorporate elements of 12-tone and serialist technique to engaging and expressive effect.

I have also enjoyed some recent works by Mr. Wuorinen, and some of his texturally rich chamber and orchestra pieces, but Saturday’s lineup (all Y commissions) seemed to represent him at his most stern and uncompromising. “Challenging” would be a polite description of the scores, even though they received committed performances by Mr. Serkin, a champion of Mr. Wuorinen’s music.

A short work attributed to the Renaissance Dutch composer Sweelinck was the unusual program opener; another infrequently performed work also proved rewarding. The Danish composer Carl Nielsen, who created his Theme and Variations (Op. 40) in 1917, once wrote that he wanted to “protest against the typical Danish soft smoothing over.” Mr. Serkin offered an excellent performance of this rhythmically incisive and harmonically colorful piece, imbuing the somber interludes with a poetic introspection and the dissonant, dramatic, bell-like passages that conclude the work with bristling fervor.

The program concluded with Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata, an interpretation replete with Mr. Serkin’s idiomatic (and sometimes puzzling) interpretive touches. As encores, he offered Beethoven’s Bagatelles (Op. 126).

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