Remembering Peter Serkin
I was quite surprised to read about the passing of the legendary Peter Serkin the other day. Some people's star burns so brightly that you imagine they will somehow always be with us. The New York Times wrote a compelling obituary about his life and contributions to music that I highly recommend to anyone who may not be familiar with his life and work.
I didn't know him well, but I have a few vivid memories of him. I had him as a chamber music coach when I was at Tanglewood in 1997. He coached two groups of mine: the Dvořák Piano Quintet and Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." I also remember going in to Manhattan in what must have been 1998 or 1999 to have a lesson with him on Mozart's K. 576, when I was a graduate student at Stony Brook. And I remember hearing him play concerts at Tanglewood, in New York, at Marlboro, and in Cologne. He was a deeply inspiring pianist, possessing a wide range of color in his playing and with a rare ability to go beyond the notes. As a teacher, he seemed totally unassuming, unpretentious and focused on the music.
His coaching on the Dvořák Quintet was impactful. I remember lots of little things: that he occasionally demonstrated at the piano, and I felt totally intimidated. I remember that, despite his immense reputation and stature, he had us all call him "Peter" instead of "Mr. Serkin." I remember that he was mild mannered yet direct and straightforward in his comments to the group. I remember being amazed that his own score had no markings on it, and realizing that he must carry all of his musical ideas and fingerings in his head. (I have frequently thought about Peter Serkin's pristine score in subsequent years, as I continue to this day to liberally mark my own music to make sure I remember to do this or that.) I also remember that his musical ideas all helped our Dvořák group play more cohesively and with much more elasticity in the beat and pulse.
When our group played Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" for him, it felt like the chance of a lifetime. Through his years with Tashi, Peter Serkin knew the piece intimately and was able to point to specific places in the score, telling us exactly what Messiaen had intended, and helping us achieve a much greater range of sound, color and emotion in the performance.
When I played Mozart for him in his apartment in New York, I was touched by his generosity and hospitality for agreeing to hear me and spend so much time with me. In the lesson I remember being struck by how amazing his ears were. He could hear things I didn't think were possible to discern. His attention to detail was unending - he talked to me about everything: phrasing, sound production, pulse, character and more. I distinctly remember him working with me on the third movement of K. 576, asking me to notice from one sixteenth note whether the intervals between the hands were consonant or dissonant, and to let that influence how I heard and therefore how I played the passage. That one experience totally changed the way I approach Mozart, and I have frequently thought about his comments in the 20+ years since he made them to me.
His performances always struck me as pristine and spoke to a larger truth: this difficult thing we all aspire to attain and so few actually manage to successfully do. I am sad that he is no longer with us; this sadness is tempered by the rich musical legacy he left behind. Here is a wonderful live recording of him playing the Goldberg Variations.