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A new take on a Bach concerto

Special to The Times

Pianist Peter Serkin often comes to us with something out of the ordinary -- unusual insights on old repertoire, thoughtful explorations of new repertoire. So in his first appearance with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra -- led on this program by concertmaster Margaret Batjer -- Serkin set his sights on J.S. Bach, trying a new/old way of looking at the popular Keyboard Concerto in D minor.

Which is perfectly fair game, since Bach himself used this music in different ways, probably converting it from an early violin concerto and later using the music in Cantatas Nos. 146 and 188. While the orchestral part in the keyboard version is written for strings, the cantatas add oboes -- and Serkin was curious to hear what oboes and strings would sound like in this context. So he arranged the first movement himself, taking his cues from Cantata 146, and then had fortepiano virtuoso Robert Levin re-create the scoring of the third movement (Bach’s manuscript for Cantata 188 is presumed lost).

Alas, the results Saturday night at the Alex Theatre were mixed, conceptually and interpretively. The two oboes and English horn triggered a balance problem in the first movement; they were too heavy, too busy, drowning out parts of Serkin’s already reticent piano line. Levin applied a lighter touch to the third movement; the balances improved, and Serkin’s playing was more propulsive, though still a bit weighed down with too much pedal. Overall, there was far more stark tragedy than exhilaration in this performance -- and for these ears, at least, there should be more of the latter.

The Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 was more satisfying, with lighter, crisper textures within the outlines of a vintage Bach sound that Serkin’s father, Rudolf, and grandfather, Adolf Busch, might have known. What made the performance a keeper was Serkin’s extraordinarily searching, ruminative, emotionally gripping treatment of the first-movement cadenza, which seemed like a miniature piano sonata from another century.

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On the front end of the evening, Batjer attached Arvo Part’s “Fratres” as a companion to Bach -- much the way Gidon Kremer did at UCLA last November. But this performance was too tense and edgy; the piece lacked its essential core of peace.

For a complete change of pace at the close, the LACO strings rose to their feet and sailed warmly through Tchaikovsky’s lovable “Souvenir de Florence” for string sextet as inflated to chamber orchestra size. All who could play standing up did -- and, as a result, they projected more forcefully into the somewhat cramped-sounding hall.


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