The Lost Tapes: Rudolf Serkin's Waldstein & Appassionata

The last recording sessions of the great Rudolf Serkin ...

The Lost Tapes: Rudolf Serkin's Waldstein & Appassionata

This release represents the last recording sessions of the great Rudolf Serkin. He was in his 80s at the time, a lifetime's experience shining through each note. This is repertorire that had followed him throughout his long career. His first recording, in 1936, was the “Appassionata”. These two performances, his final Beethoven recordings, date from 1986 and 1989.

The first movement of the “Waldstein” is full of miracles; and shocks. Somehow amidst all teh beauty fo tone, Beethoven can still stab us in the back. This is masterly playing:

... and just to compare earlier Serkin, her he is, more impulsive and fiery, back in September 1952:

The four-minute Introduzione is a forest of mysteries, Serkin's low pedal approach emphasising the sparse, almost radical nature of Beethoven's writing. It speaks of age-old wisdom, of reminiscing. The emergence of the finale is gentle, the tempo teh perfect reflection of Beethoven's desired “Allergetto moderato”. Every note speaks. But it would take someone of Serkin's immense experience - of life, of Beethoven, of the piano - to bring this off so convincingly. It is like there is no other way. Serkin's rhythm is rock solid; he steadfastly refuses to rush, and his approach to the coda is well-nigh apocalyptic. That final Presto is indeed fast, but so carefully articulated:

The recording of the “Waldstein” took place at SUNY Purchase College Recital Hall, New York, in March 1986.

The “Appassionata” recorded at Vermont in May-June 1989. It is slower than Serkin's 1960's version: in the slowing, there is something of late Arrau, with its mature appreciation of every aspect. Like late Arrau also, not everything is perfect technically; but it really, really matters not a jot. The piano, too, is really well caught, particularly the tricky upper registers. Serkin's understanding of Beethoven's processes makes for compelling listening:

The slow movement is positively prayer-like at its opening, rapt, beautiful. It unfolds with a sense of monumentalism; we a re a long way away from the beauty of, say, Pires or Uchida; instead, we hear the rigour of Beethoven's writing.

In some senses the finale reminds me of Brendel in its sense of space, carefully leaving scope for the final Presto to make its mark. One particularly thorny passage around 6"25 clearly causes Serkin some angst, but with his overall structural grasp it is a mere hiccup. The Presto is fascinating as it almost dances:

The finale is indeed very different from that of Serkin's LP from 1963 (ML 5881), after, yet still imbued with a complete grasp of Beethoven's writing. Many from my generation will remember this LP performance from the classic LP reissue below in the “Great performances” series:

The music is below. Just listen to the clarity and strength of the finger work in the approach to the Presto - and the sheer power of that very coda in the earlier recording:

Personally, I almost heard Serkin perform live; I heard many of the greats, but Serkin, like Richter and Michelangeli, eluded me. Serkin was booked to play Mozart with the LSO under Abbado, I had a ticket, but he cancelled (I seem to remember late on in the process, and I think the replacement was Alicia de Laroccha). Heigh ho.

The DG disc is available at Amazon here.