In a recent radio broadcast I heard one of the young generation of pianists quoted as referring to Rudolf Serkin as ‘an anachronism’. Serkin was certainly never that in the proper sense of the word, but I think I know what the young man meant. What I guess he meant is that Serkin defined a certain school of ‘classical’ playing that has now been superseded. In 1920 when the Busch family sought him eagerly for the pianist of their chamber ensemble it was precisely because they had heard that he was a moderniser of their own school. There is no justice in this world, and it was sad, and deeply unintended on Serkin’s part, that while his career flourished in the United States that of the great Adolf Busch, Serkin’s father-in-law, waned. Modern then of course is not modern now, but even today I can’t really see fortepianos completely ousting concert grands in the Mozart concertos. These are instruments that can deliver the volume of sound needed in Rachmaninov, but the right players, indeed any players at all, will reduce their touch to a proper level for Mozart. That was what Artur Schnabel did while pursuing his stylistic reforms; and in the footsteps of Schnabel came Serkin.
Serkin had all Schnabel’s genius with none of his arrogance. He also had something else – something that he looked for in his pupils and contemporaries – and that was a strongly individual personality. It is hard to mistake Serkin in his prime, and that remains true to some extent after he had fallen out of love with his own earlier manner, the distinctive touch and style that I and many treasure him for. Towards the end of his life he recorded the entire series of the Mozart concertos with Abbado and the LSO. This ‘Mark II’ series has had mixed reviews, and frankly it does not interest me much either. What I can’t get enough of is the great prophetic sense of his earlier persona, showing a grasp of rhythm and timing that I have never heard equalled. This is what I find here on this bargain-priced disc, and it is what I recommend to those who may not know Serkin, and indeed also to those who, like me, have several other performances from him.
I have three other cd versions of the great D minor concerto K466 by Serkin, plus one on LP paired with K459 in F. That was also a product of his long and marvellous association with Szell, and I think both performances possibly the finest Mozart concerto performances I have ever heard. I also believe that the LP has now been transferred to cd, and if so I cannot sufficiently urge all lovers of great music-making to acquire it. However this short review is not really about comparisons or identifying any notionally ‘best’ performances. The K466 that we have here is from 1961, the K595 from the following year, and the sound may have been remastered. The sound is not marvellous, but it is perfectly adequate. What I want the set for is as a further monument to great Mozart playing, even if the last movement of K466 is more than slightly high-powered.
How anachronistic do you feel like being? At this level of investment you are not taking much of a risk, if you even think of it as a risk. .