Deep concentration and immaculate pianism are what we have come to expect from Peter Serkin over the 29 years he has visited here.
Consequently there were no surprises in Serkin’s seemingly provocative and handsomely played Pasadena recital Wednesday night. This was only the 47-year-old pianist’s second Ambassador Auditorium appearance--Serkin, who made his local debut at Hollywood Bowl in 1966, has played mostly at UCLA and the Music Center over these three decades.
Music by German-American Stefan Wolpe opened each half of the program, first the three-movement Toccata (1941), then the brief but anguished “Forum IV,” two highly complex and forbidding works that Serkin played with pristine clarity, using scores.
Analytical rather than affectionate readings made up the rest of this program, devoted to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata and Brahms’ “Handel” Variations. The pianist’s characteristic, probing approach, which often results in performances of amazing conviction, this time seemed to put a distance between player and listener; instead of edification, we appeared to receive only data.
Beethoven’s Opus 57 became dissected rather than re-created, its undeniable stylishness failing to illuminate emotional content. Despite scrupulous detailing, the heat in the work practically never materialized.
Brahmsian vehemence without Brahmsian warmth would describe the “Handel” Variations, delivered at bracing tempos that clouded more than they revealed. The work clearly contains more substance, and more variety, than was being delivered on this occasion.
At the end, Serkin graciously offered three encores for the delectation of his audience: Chopin’s G-flat Etude, the “Butterfly"; Brahms’ Intermezzo in C, Opus 119, No. 2; Bach’s Three-Part Invention in E-flat.