Pianist Peter Serkin to perform Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations

Peter Serkin. Photo by Regina Touhey Serkin

Visiting Professor of Piano Peter Serkin is set to perform Bach’s enduring “Goldberg” Variations, BWV 988, on Wednesday, January 16, as part of the Horowitz Piano Series. The program also includes Mozart’s Adagio in B minor, K. 540, and the Sonata in B-flat major, K. 570. We spoke with Prof. Serkin about his relationship with the monumental “Goldberg” Variations and his views on performing the work on a modern instrument.

Q: You’ve performed the “Goldberg” Variations since the beginning of your career. How has your approach to the work changed over the years?

A: The Aria with 30 variations by Bach is such a great work that one keeps discovering more in it; working on it and considering it can easily be a life’s project. I first started playing it when I was about 13. When I had a lesson with my teacher, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, he listened to the whole piece and when it was done sat there for at least two or three minutes in silence. Then he said about Bach, “What a great heart this man has!” Then a few years later it was on my graduation program at Curtis. Since then I have kept coming back to it.

I have five recordings now of this work. One, from Freiburg, Germany, is of a live performance. Right before the concert there, the presenter, who is a friend, came back to say that he would like me to take no repeats so that we can go out to eat and drink sooner afterward. So, after playing the Webern Variations, I defiantly, and mischievously, played the Bach with all its repeats. This was the very first time I had performed it like that. I was actually surprised at how compelling and convincing that was.

I had initially followed [Donald Francis] Tovey’s advice to not take the repeats, which he said would be “as unmusical as it would be unscholarly.” But later I started experimenting, never taking one repeat in a variation and not the other, but taking both repeats in some variations and none in others. I have often made those decisions on the spot during a performance.

My most recent recording of it has just been released on Vivace Records, also a live performance, which I gave in St. Paul last year. It is a two-CD set, and on the other CD is the Partita in E minor and the wonderful Suite for Lute-Cembalo in C minor. All live performances.

I never was a believer in waiting to be old to play certain works—what if one doesn’t make it to be that old? So I started early, and I am glad of it.

Q: The work was composed for a two-manual harpsichord. What are your thoughts about performing the “Goldberg” Variations on a modern piano?

A: Much has been made of the difficulties of negotiating the crossing of hands in this music that was designed for a two-manual keyboard. And those difficulties are formidable—sometimes it seems almost impossible to play! Once I encountered a Wurlitzer piano that was constructed with two manuals, a bit circular in design. It was fun, as it is on the organ or on the harpsichord, to play such music without the fingers and hands getting so entangled in each other. I personally do not rearrange any of it to make it easier on a one-manual (piano, or sometimes I play it at home on the clavichord) keyboard; I play everything as written, to keep the voices separate and clear, all the while visualizing internally that I am playing on two keyboards—each hand, like in much four-hand music, making room for another, just enough to make it possible for each to play without hindrance.

Q: Do you revisit previous recordings or ideas you had earlier in your career, or do you approach this piece differently with each new performance?

A: I play this work, and other works by Bach, too, differently each time I play. It is said that Bach himself played the same piece differently each time. These composers were magnificent improvisers, after all. Apparently Chopin played his works radically differently, each time, too. Of course this cannot be based on arbitrary caprice, but with familiarity and insight into the music that then frees one to make spontaneous choices. In no way do I try to solidify a way of playing this work. I try to approach it with great openness, knowing something about what options are possible and then going with one or another, or with something not yet discovered—I often am surprised myself—and hopefully with some of the spirit of freshness, adventurousness, and spontaneity in which it was composed. Playing each variation and the theme quite differently each time concerns tempi, character and expression, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics, and in allowing for variety of each, especially in phrasing and articulation. It is an adventure to live with this work. And, profound as it is, somehow this composition is in the spirit of fun at the same time.

DETAILS & TICKETS

PETER SERKIN

Published January 7, 2019
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Concert to showcase former students of Boris Berman

Boris Berman

On Wednesday, April 4, several former students of faculty pianist and Horowitz Piano Series Artistic Director Boris Berman will perform a concert that celebrates his 70th birthday, which takes place the day before, and the work Berman has done at YSM since joining the School’s faculty in 1984.

“We have so many wonderful alums among the graduates of the piano department,” Berman said. The challenge in putting this concert together was identifying which alumni would perform. He decided to build a program around recent graduates who have had success at international competitions.

The program will feature sisters Esther Park ’12AD ’13MMA ’17DMA and Sun-A Park ’16AD ’17MMA, performing together as Duo Amadeae; Ronaldo Rolim ’20DMA; Henry Kramer ’13AD ’19DMA; and Larry Weng ’14MMA ’19DMA and Yevgeny Yontov ’14MM ’20DMA, performing as part of the icarus Quartet, which also includes percussionists Jeff Stern ’16AD and Matthew Keown ’16MM ’20DMA. Berman asked each pianist to propose several pieces of repertoire, then “tried to make a varied program of different styles.” The program will feature works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Albéniz, Ravel, and Bartók.

Duo Amadeae won first prize at the Chicago International Duo Piano Competition in 2016. Rolim won Astral Artists’ 2017 national auditions. Kramer earned second prize at the 2016 Queen Elisabeth Competition, of which Weng was named a laureate. And Yontov was a finalist at the 15th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.

While the April 4 program showcases Berman’s students, he is quick to celebrate the collaborative nature of YSM’s piano department. When pianists arrive at YSM to study, they can expect to cross paths with all piano faculty members. “We have a department in which we truly enjoy being together,” Berman said. “Very often, I send my students to play for my colleagues.” Two of those colleagues, Wei-Yi Yang and Deputy Dean Melvin Chen, are Berman’s former students. The primary criteria Berman and his piano faculty colleagues use in selecting pianists for admission is artistic individuality. “We are in the position to select people who are both very engaged intellectually and also wonderful artists,” he said of the students who enroll at the School of Music. “It is not by accident that every year we have applicants from the best schools.”

Esther Park enrolled at YSM and joined Berman’s studio after earning an undergraduate and graduate degree from The Juilliard School and then studying at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hannover. “He respected the background that I came from,” she said. “He knew exactly what I needed.” Talking with Berman about music, Park said, is “like speaking with Yoda.”

The piano department at YSM is unique, Park said, because of the faculty members’ relationships. When she was working on music by Schubert or Schumann, Berman would encourage Park to play for Peter Frankl. In turn, pianists from other faculty members’ studios play certain repertoire — Prokofiev, for example — for Berman. Park takes that approach at East Tennessee State University, where she is an assistant professor of piano.

Kramer, who is an assistant teaching professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, also spoke about the collaborative environment at YSM. “We all would play for each other and help disseminate ideas that had come to us through Prof. Berman,” Kramer said. “The overall environment at YSM is very intense and expecting the highest caliber of music-making, but at the same time you feel that the fabric of the faculty, students, and administration weaves together to create this wonderful network of support propelling you to achieve your own personal best results. I am honored to have the opportunity to celebrate my school and my professor during this concert.”

Berman points out that he, in turn, learns plenty from his students. Sometimes a student’s performance will remain “a reference for me,” he said, explaining that he will find himself “convinced,” after hearing a particular interpretation.

“It’s a fascinating field,” he said, “and it is a great privilege to work with so many talented people.”

On Wednesday, April 4, alumni who studied with faculty pianist and Horowitz Piano Series Artistic Director Boris Berman return from international successes to perform at the School of Music.

PROGRAM DETAILS & TICKETS

Published April 2, 2018
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Pianist Peter Serkin to perform Schoenberg, Mozart, and more Oct. 22

serkin_p

Peter Serkin, piano

The Yale School of Music presents a piano recital by Peter Serkin on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 at 7:30 pm. The highly acclaimed pianist will present a program of works spanning several hundred years, from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.

From William Byrd to Charles Wuorinen, Mr. Serkin displays a unique prowess in performing virtually anything written for the keyboard. The American Record Guide considers him “one of the most perceptive and provocative pianists of his generation, as comfortable exploring the music of the past as he is in some of the most stimulating works of our time.”

Serkin will begin with a short piece, Ave Christe, written by the Renaissance composer Josquin and re-worked by Charles Wuorinen  (b. 1938). The program continues with two Renaissance works, Sweelinck‘s Capriccio (originally written for organ) and John Bull‘s Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la: A Gigge (God Save the King) phantasy, originally for harpsichord. MORE

Published October 8, 2014
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Orion String Quartet performs Bach, Beethoven, and Kirchner

Pianist Peter Serkin joins the ensemble for the Brahms piano quintet

orion_blogThe Orion String Quartet, one of America’s foremost chamber ensembles, will perform with the stellar pianist Peter Serkin at the Yale School of Music on Tuesday, February 23 at 8 pm. The first half of the program will offer string quartets by Bach, Kirchner, and Beethoven: Contrapunctus I from Bach’s Art of the Fugue; Kirchner’s String Quartet No. 4, written in 2006; and Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 74. The evening will conclude with the Brahms Piano Quintet, featuring Serkin in the demanding piano part.

The members of the Orion String Quartet are violinists Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy. Daniel and Todd Phillips are brothers who share the first violin chair equally. Serkin, recognized as one of America’s leading pianists for over forty years, has been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards and is a versatile artist who has recorded and performed music from Bach to Brahms to the twenty-first century. He is the son of the pianist Rudolf Serkin and the grandson of the violinist and composer Adolf Busch.

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Published February 5, 2010
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