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“A Peter Serkin performance always stimulates the intellect as much as the ears.” —The New Yorker

Peter Serkin, piano

SWEELINCK: Capriccio
WUORINEN: Adagio (92Y co-commission)
WUORINEN: Intrada (New York premiere, 92Y co-commission)
WUORINEN: Scherzo (92Y commission)
NIELSEN: Theme and Variations for Piano, Op. 40
BEETHOVEN: Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux”

The concert is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes.

 

The 92nd Street Y co-commission of Intrada is funded by the Adele and John Gray Endowment Fund.

This concert is partially supported by the Bertha & Isaac Liberman Foundation.


This event is underwritten in memory of Harold W. and Ida L. Goldstein by the Estate of Sanford Goldstein.

Peter Serkin, piano
BEETHOVEN: Sonata Op. 57 "Appassionata" in F minor – III. Allegro ma non troppo; Presto
(RCA)

Explore the Music

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SWEELINCK: Capriccio in A minor (attr.)

JAN PIETERSZOON SWEELINCK

Born in Amsterdam, May 1562; died in Amsterdam, October 16, 1621
Capriccio in A minor (attr.)
Date unknown; 4 minutes

The earliest extant manuscript of this Capriccio in A minor attributes the work to the great Dutch composer, organist and music teacher Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. But recent scholarship has called the attribution into question. Sweelinck was indeed one of the most innovative keyboard composers before J. S. Bach, almost single-handedly developing the form of the keyboard fugue. But there are features of this particular work that mark it either as a bowdlerized version of an authentic (but now lost) Sweelinck composition, or more likely another composer’s work altogether.

Still, this meditative Capriccio also demonstrates some of the important stylistic developments associated with Sweelinck’s oeuvre. The main theme and counter-themes are intensely chromatic, alluding to the series of chromatic fantasias by Sweelinck that are some of the first keyboard works of his era to explore total chromaticism. The theme is presented fugally—as Sweelinck would have done—but some of the fugal entries are inverted, a technique Sweelinck avoided. Occasionally, a 16th-note passage leaps out of the texture, indicating a composer’s rough, awkward hand; certainly not the assured technique of an accomplished musician nicknamed the “Orpheus of Amsterdam” in his own day.

The Capriccio’s chromaticism also raises questions of tuning. Scholars generally agree that lutes in Sweelinck’s day were tuned to equal temperament, while keyboards employed a variety of other tuning systems. Sweelinck, who was a lutenist himself, was one of the first composers to realize that in order to import the lute’s chromatic capabilities into keyboard music, a different tuning system had to be employed—something approaching well-temperament, with each chromatic half-step roughly (but acceptably) equivalent in size. (This is not the same as equal temperament— the standard system for tuning keyboards since 1900—where all half-steps are exactly the same.)

In this performance, Mr. Serkin plays a piano tuned to an eighth-comma meantone, a “well-tempered” tuning system that, while audibly distinct from equal-temperament, approximates more closely the tuning systems familiar to keyboard composers from Sweelinck’s era to the late 19th century.

© 2014 Luke Howard

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WUORINEN: Adagio (92Y co-commission)
WUORINEN: Intrada (New York premiere, 92Y co-commission)
WUORINEN: Scherzo (92Y commission)

CHARLES WUORINEN

Born in New York City, June 9, 1938
Adagio (92Y co-commission)
Composed in 2011; 14 minutes
Intrada (New York premiere, 92Y co-commission)
Composed in 2012; 8 minutes
Scherzo (92Y commission)
Composed n 2007; 10 minutes

Charles Wuorinen has had a busy and high-profile few months—busier, indeed, and higher-profile than usual for this ever-active composer. A number of performances and full concerts celebrating his 75th birthday year were presented in 2013, including those at the Guggenheim Museum and the Morgan Library. Also, in February 2014, the culmination of several years of compositional and logistical labor (as well as the navigation of the mercurial opera world) came to fruition with the premiere of Wuorinen and Annie Proulx’s opera Brokeback Mountain at the Teatro Real, Madrid. Those premiere performances have received attention and worldwide critical acclaim.

Wuorinen’s reputation as a composer will never be affixed to any particular genre; his accomplishments in every facet of concert and stage music have been too broad, in terms of both technique and expressive impact. This variety obtains throughout his catalog, from opera and other large-scale works (among them eight symphonies, a Mass, and an evening-length ballet based on Dante’s Divine Comedy) to song and chamber music. In his early work with the Group for Contemporary Music, beginning in the early 1960s, Wuorinen took pride in creating a new genre for every new composition, and his Pulitzer Prize in Music (1970) was for Time’s Encomium, a rare foray into pure electronic music.

An accomplished pianist from early in his musical life, Wuorinen has composed a substantial body of work for his own instrument: solo, four-hand and two piano pieces, and piano with ensembles of various sizes. There are, to date, four concertos, so named, as well as other works for piano and orchestra; four fully fledged piano sonatas; and a number of larger and smaller solo works. Some of the most respected pianists in the world have brought this music into their repertoire, including Alan Feinberg, Ursula Oppens, Garrick Ohlsson and, of course, Peter Serkin.

“One of the great joys of my musical life has been my long association with Peter Serkin. … His remarkable virtuosity is always complemented by a wonderful capacity for expressive phrasing. The great humanity of his playing makes composing for him a rare privilege.” So writes Charles Wuorinen of his close collaborator, who has originated more than half a dozen of the composer’s pieces since the mid-1970s with his TASHI (both a chamber and an orchestral work), composed for the ensemble of the same name in which Serkin was pianist.

Serkin recorded Wuorinen’s Bagatelle for Solo Piano, and in recent years, he has been the recipient of three works for piano with orchestra—the Fourth Piano Concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra during James Levine’s tenure as music director; Time Regained, a fantasy for piano and orchestra, for the MET Orchestra and Levine; and Flying to Kahani, a concerto for piano and “Mozart-sized orchestra,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The Second Piano Quintet was commissioned for Serkin and the Brentano Quartet.

Charles Wuorinen wrote the three contrasting piano solo pieces Scherzo, Adagio and Intrada for Serkin on three separate occasions via commissions from 92nd Street Y, in cooperation with other organizations. Scherzo dates from 2007, Adagio from 2011, and Intrada from 2012. The first two were conceived independently, but with Intrada, Wuorinen aimed to subtly link the other two, thereby creating a larger three-movement form. The composer writes:

In the final assembling of the set, I wanted flexibility of ordering. Thus the purpose of the Intrada is either one of linking or preluding. I specify in my score that the potential six orderings of the three pieces, only two are forbidden: those where the Intrada would be last. Thus, what we hear tonight is only one of four orderings of the three pieces. The question of pre-planned large structure versus organic growth might raise interesting artistic and psychological issues. It’s not my place to invoke them here, but I have to wonder if the results of the two approaches, when coming from the same artist, are really so crucially different? This question is amusing for me to ponder, as one who has long been associated with the rational organization of large scale structures.

“Scherzo” and “Adagio” are both traditional in genre. Scherzo (Italian for “joke”) in a piano solo invokes Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms, and it’s this witty, sparking character that infuses Wuorinen’s piece. The particulars involve unexpected hesitations among flitting textures, contrasting legato and staccato, rapid scales or arpeggios against dark, solid chords.

The Scherzo and Adagio are of similar heft and approximately equal duration; Intrada (“Entrance”) is about two-thirds the length of either of the others. The prevalence of a dotted-note rhythm—short-long, or long-short-long—engages our memory of the Baroque. A syncopated repeated-note figure heard first in the third measure is another gestural touchstone. For the most part contrapuntally dense, Intrada becomes fleeter and more airy in its final minute. Adagio, never merely a tempo marking, has the association of the lovely Mozartian idea, not without its shadows; that was also adopted by Mahler. In the modern era “adagio” has taken on darker intensity and frequently a less linear sense of time. The near-stillness of Wuorinen’s Adagio is heightened by its occasional punctuations of quick gestures or sharp accents, its successions of rich chords, and unexpected interplay of the complex with the daringly transparent.

© 2014 Robert Kirzinger

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NIELSEN: Theme and Variations for Piano, Op. 40

CARL NIELSEN

Born in Sortelung, Denmark, June 9, 1865; died in Copenhagen, October 3, 1931
Theme and Variations for Piano, Op. 40
Composed in 1917; 15 minutes

The music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen has long been overshadowed by that of his Finnish contemporary, Jean Sibelius. But if there is one trait that distinguishes Nielsen’s music from Sibelius’s, it is perhaps a more pronounced classicism, expressed in the music’s formal conception, clarity, transparency of texture and reliance on diatonic harmony.

The struggle to reconcile a conservative impulse with the emerging modernism of the 20th century was a conscious preoccupation for Nielsen. He once wrote to the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang, “I wanted to protest against the typical Danish soft smoothing over. I want stronger rhythms and more advanced harmony.” And yet on another occasion he commented to a friend, “We should once and for all see about getting away from keys, but still remain diatonically convincing.”

Although Nielsen was not a great piano virtuoso, he returned to piano music throughout his career, and this freedom of style, detached from the demands of virtuosity, led him to write music that has sometimes been criticized as unpianistic. If the criticism is accurate, then it is only in the same way that Beethoven’s piano music is also unpianistic. Both composers wrote the way they wanted for the piano, focusing on the musical goals of the piece with less consideration of what the hands could or could not do easily. The two piano works at the start of Nielsen’s middle period that demonstrate this most effectively are the Chaconne, Op. 32, and the Theme and Variations, Op. 40; both works dated from 1916–17.

The music of Brahms preoccupied Nielsen when he began work on the Theme and Variations. The choralelike theme is decidedly Brahmsian in character. The variations that immediately follow (and, indeed, the variation form itself) spring from Brahms’s Romantic-era practices, though they move decidedly toward the 20th-century nearer the end of the work.

Aware that any variation set can suffer from tonal monotony, Nielsen fashioned his theme so that it starts in B minor but then, almost imperceptibly, modulates to G minor, so that each new variation requires a harmonic retransition. The first variations use traditional techniques—ornamenting the line, changing the rhythms and accompaniments, creating a two-part invention from the melody, for example. But as they proceed, the variations become more abstract, orchestral, occasionally more technical, culminating in the expansive 15th variation in which bell-like dissonances ring out with the complete tonal freedom and rhythmic and textural variety that Nielsen constantly sought in his music.

© 2014 Luke Howard

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BEETHOVEN: Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux”

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Born in Bonn, baptized December 17, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux”
Composed in 1809–10; 16 minutes

During the first decade of the 19th century, Beethoven’s reputation catapulted from a local piano celebrity in Vienna to an uncontested position as the leading composer in Europe. But the end of that decade, especially the year 1809, turned out to be unusually barren for the composer. He worked on the Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) and some piano sonatas in 1809, but little else of import. He was more concerned at the time about the political situation in Vienna, a city under attack from Napoleon’s French forces. Beethoven noted that the summer of 1809 was filled with nothing but the explosions of bombs and cannons, making composition impossible. The following year, 1810, was even less productive.

The one major piano sonata from this period is the Sonata in E-flat, Op. 81a, nicknamed “Les Adieux” or “Das Lebewohl” (“The Farewell”). It shares not only a heroic key signature but also inspiration with both the “Emperor” Concerto with which it is contemporary, and the “Eroica” Symphony, which Beethoven conducted in that summer of 1809 at a charity concert in Vienna.

The sonata was written in response to the swift departure from Vienna of Beethoven’s principal patron, the Archduke Rudolph, during the siege. The “farewell” of the title was personal—the Archduke was Beethoven’s only composition pupil, a fine pianist himself, and the dedicatee of more of Beethoven’s works than any other patron. But it was also a public farewell, as one of Vienna’s leading political figures was forced to seek refuge in the face of Napoleon’s surging army.

The word “le-be-wohl” is inscribed in the score over the three-chord horn call that opens the sonata, which itself serves as a kind of leitmotif throughout the work. While nominally in E-flat major, the lefthand enters with octave Cs that forecast the C-minor key of the second movement. This slow introduction—intimate, halting, and poignant—soon gives way to an E-flat Allegro that, with its upward leaping octaves, symbolizes both happy memories and optimism regarding the Archduke’s future safe return. But throughout the movement, the descending scale pattern of the horn-call figure still predominates.

The second movement, in C minor, is so brief as to be merely a prelude to the finale. Questioning motifs reflect a sense of loneliness during the Archduke’s absence, and the improvisatory quality suggests a longing for order. At the Archduke’s return, the sonata leaps excitedly into a vivacious sonata-allegro movement. After the recapitulation, the coda slows down, becoming more reflective, just as in the coda of the “Emperor” Concerto’s finale. In both cases, this contemplation is merely preparatory to an exuberant rush into a joyful conclusion.

© 2014 Luke Howard

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Artist Bio

Peter Serkin, piano

Recognized as an artist of passion and integrity, the distinguished American pianist Peter Serkin is one of the most thoughtful and individualistic musicians appearing before the public today.

Mr. Serkin’s 2013/14 season began with summer appearances at Tanglewood and the BBC Proms. His orchestral engagements have included Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the New York Philharmonic and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Boston Symphony and Annapolis Symphony, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the IRIS Orchestra. Mr. Serkin performed with the Orion String Quartet in Detroit, Denver, Phoenix and Stone Mountain, Massachusetts; with the Shanghai Quartet at the University of Richmond; and with violinist Ida Kavafian at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Tonight concludes his recital season, which has featured appearances in Philadelphia, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Santa Monica and Pawling, New York.

An avid exponent of the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, Mr. Serkin has been instrumental in bringing to life works of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Wolpe, Messiaen, Henze and Berio in concert and on CD. He has performed and recorded many important world premieres which were written specifically for him by such composers as Takemitsu, Lieberson, Knussen, Goehr and, particularly, Wuorinen.

Among other highlights in Mr. Serkin’s discography, his recording of the six Mozart concerti of 1784 with Alexander Schneider and the English Chamber Orchestra was nominated for a Grammy Award and received the prestigious Deutsche Schallplattenpreis and “Best Recording of the Year” by Stereo Review. Other Grammy-nominated recordings include Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus and Quartet for the End of Time on BMG and a solo recording of works by Stravinsky, Wolpe and Lieberson for New World Records.

Mr. Serkin’s rich musical heritage extends back several generations: his grandfather was violinist and composer Adolf Busch, and his father was the renowned pianist Rudolf Serkin. He entered the Curtis Institute of Music at age eleven, and he now teaches at Bard College Conservatory of Music and the Longy School of Music. As a dedicated chamber musician, Mr. Serkin has collaborated with Pamela Frank, Yo-Yo Ma, the Budapest, Guarneri and Orion string quartets and TASHI, of which he was a founding member.

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