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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Serkin Plays Beethoven: The 1945-1952 Solo Piano Recordings for Columbia
Piano Sonatas: No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2a (1801) [15’54]; No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, ‘Pathétiqueb (1798) [18’05]; No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, ‘Appassionatac (1805) [23’50]; No. 26 in E flat, Op. 81a, ‘Les adieuxd (1810) [15’01]; No. 21 in C, Op. 53, ‘Waldsteine (1804) [26’06]; No. 30 in E, Op. 109f (1822) [21’53]; No. 24 in F sharp, Op. 78g (1809) [10’28[. Fantasy, Op. 77g (1809) [8’52].
Rudolf Serkin (piano).
From Columbia originals. Rec. aMay 28th-30th, 1951, bJune 5th, 1945, cJuly 14th and 29th, 1947, dMay 1st and 28th-30th, 1951, eSeptember 8th-10th, 1952, fJuly 22nd, 1952, gDecember 1st, 1947. ADD
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1141(2) [141’25: 73’10 + 68’15]

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Great to be reminded of the stature of Rudolf Serkin’s Beethoven. In many ways the first sonata we hear, the ‘Moonlight’, presents an overview of Serkin’s way. The repose of the famous first movement exemplifies his tender side (notwithstanding a hint of over-projection of the melody). It is the finale that shows us Serkin’s wild side. It reminded me of Pollini – live – furiously fast yet every note audible, with accents like flashes of lightning. This is great Beethoven playing, interpretatively so assured with a feel of the virtuoso ... especially towards the end. There are other versions by Serkin available, of course (1941 and 1962). This one was previously unissued on CD and demands a place in every pianophile’s collection.

Concentration is the key-word for the Pathétique’s introduction, a dark lead-in to an allegro (di molto e con brio) that houses some superb dialogues between voices. Sforzandi verge on the violent – this is no comfortable listen. Serkin’s way with ‘dialogues’ is again evident in the famous slow movement, but in other places in this movement there are touches of awkwardness – the very first notes seem rather ‘pushed’, rather forced. Much better is the brisk finale. Serkin keeps total control - no wallowing - and there is real excitement towards the close. Recording quality for this sonata as all the others is typical of CBS, slightly dry, to my ears, yet detailed. Transfers (Graham Newton) are excellently managed, with hiss left in that one very quickly attunes to.

The Appassionata (from Columbia MS5164) is notable not only for its concentration but for its truly explosive nature. To effect this, Serkin ensures dynamic contrasts are great. The opening is supremely hushed to ensure maximum contrast. This is electric playing. Cascades of notes there may be, but each note within them has its own life, its own carefully-considered weight. Interestingly, the second movement variations are unsettled from the start. Clearly there is a real thinker at the helm here. Everything, every note, is carefully placed within the whole. What is usually a moment of consolation (3’20 here) is here only partially so, Serkin taking into consideration the surroundings. Whether one agrees with Serkin’s take or not, one has to admire his directional thought and unity of conception.

Typical of the CBS recording are the steely accents that herald the opening of the whirlwind finale. The coda acts as the true crown of the work, although in sound terms it emerges as a little brittle and dry. There appears to be a scuff of some kind on the source material around 2’40 onwards.

Finally on CD1, the Les adieux. Here contrast between slow introduction and allegro is very marked indeed. This truly is an Adagio (it appears somewhat distanced, too); the Allegro bursts forth unstoppably. Be warned, though - this is a more volatile farewell than most. In keeping with the unwillingness to lapse into any sort of sentimentality, the slow movement aches without the milk; the finale positively sparkles. Serkin’s fingerwork in this tricky movement is beyond reproach.

CD2 opens with the amazingly even chording of the opening of the Waldstein. If Barenboim (HMV) remains my firm favourite here, Serkin is not far behind. True, the occasional wrong note creeps in (around 7'14), but given this is in the context of masterly Beethoven playing it hardly matters. The sotto voce mystery of the brief slow movement leads absolutely magically into the tremendous buzzing energy of the finale. This appears to be one of only two ‘Waldstein’s Serkin recorded (the other from 1975).

Serkin clearly takes a less impressionist view of the opening of Op. 109 than does Schnabel (Naxos: see my review). There is a clear sense of the grand with Serkin in this first of his three versions of this sonata (the others hailing from 1976 and 1987), though, with huge fortes. I like Serkin’s accuracy in the Prestissimo. Maybe there is a touch of the literal in the heavenly finale, or perhaps that is deliberate avoidance of an ascent to the heavens. This is a more resolute reading than most, stabbing accents almost violent (around 6’55) and if the final restatement of the movements opening is lovely, it is clearly not of a mystical bent.

The Fantasy and the Op. 78 Sonata were issued together (Columbia ML4128) and there exist alternative Serkins of both; 1970 and 1973 respectively. The Fantasy is a strange piece, and Serkin’s harsh sfs seem out of place. A surface scuff is audible also. Yet the moments of simplicity work really well: around 7’30-40, for example.

Finally, the F sharp Sonata, in a tender, affectionate performance of the first movement. The brief finale (2’29) is impressive technically if not quite as cheeky as it could be.

A veritable treasure trove, then.

 Colin Clarke


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