Notable Variations’

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presents Peter Serkin

3 minute read
Pianist Peter Serkin appeared at the Kimmel on January 18. (Photo courtesy of PCMS.)
Pianist Peter Serkin appeared at the Kimmel on January 18. (Photo courtesy of PCMS.)

While I waited to hear pianist Peter Serkin with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) at the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater in January, I remembered a concert I attended several years ago in which Serkin performed Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations — for me, the summit of the piano literature.

It’s music that begins with a simple tune by Austrian composer and music publisher Anton Diabelli (1781-1858). Diabelli requested a single variation on his theme from a number of composers. Beethoven answered the call with 34 variations, which took music places it had never gone before and, at least on the keyboard, has not gone since. Emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, you cannot require more of the musician who plays it, and Serkin’s performance was superb in its structure and poise: like witnessing a cathedral built in an hour.

It was thus with much anticipation that I awaited Serkin’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the centerpiece of his January 18 recital for PCMS. Bach allegedly composed them not for a publisher but for a musician: Johann Theophilus Goldberg, whose job it was to while away the sleepless nights of his noble patron. These Bach variations served Beethoven as a model for his own, and which cathedral one prefers is a matter of taste. What is sure is that they stand alone.

Goldberg…and what else?

Serkin’s Goldberg did not disappoint, but the question is how one fills out a program that contains it. Serkin chose two works by Mozart, the Adagio in B Minor, K. 540, and the Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, K. 570. The Adagio is a stand-alone sonata-form movement in a key Mozart employed only once elsewhere, and its significance for him was clear: it is the only work whose key signature he inscribed on the score.

Like the Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, it appears to have been a deeply personal expression that would not fit into any longer work, and some of its admirers consider it his greatest keyboard composition. It did not thrive, however, in Serkin’s approach. The statement of its opening theme couched it in questing, Romantic terms, but Serkin’s tempos were so deliberate that the music all but lost cohesion over the course of its fifteen-minute duration — virtually twice the length of its usual performance time.

The Sonata in B-Flat fared little better, especially in its own Adagio, the most extended of all the slow movements of Mozart’s keyboard sonatas. Serkin did pick up the tempo in the concluding Allegretto but, although there were moments of characteristic insight and beauty of tone, much of the experience of the program’s first half was of Mozart, the most cogent of composers, being pulled apart like taffy.

A masterful rendering

It was a different Serkin, however, who sat down to Bach. The aria that serves as the basis of the Goldberg Variations is, in contrast to the Diabelli motif, a beautiful one, although the 30 variations that follow — mostly dances and arias set off by canons — are based largely on the ground bass of the melody rather the melody itself. They hold much variety, although they build (as in so much of Bach) to a great formal unity, an architecture as formidable as Beethoven’s, albeit arrived at by quite different means. Serkin was masterful throughout, weaving the work’s complex rhythms, ornaments, and contrapuntal turns into a final whole with clarity, intelligence, and grace. With Mozart, he had seemed to be reaching for something that wasn’t there. In Bach, he found exactly what was, and realized it with the musical culture of a lifetime.

What, When, Where

Peter Serkin, Piano. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Adagio in B Minor, K. 540; Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, K. 570. Johann Sebastian Bach, The Goldberg Variations (Aria with Diverse Variations, BWV 988). Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. January 18, 2019, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 569-8080 or

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