P0181. RUDOLF SERKIN - The Unreleased Studio Recordings - Beethoven Piano Sonatas. 3-Sony SM3K 64 490, recorded 1960-80. Long Out of Print, Final Copy! - 074646449028
“These sonatas, recorded between 1960 and 1980, have never been released before, and their importance cannot be exaggerated. Although he never was able to complete a projected cycle of the 32 sonatas in New York, Serkin was - between the death of Artur Schnabel in 1951 and the rise of Alfred Brendel in the late 1970s - often considered the world's pre-eminent Beethoven player.
Serkin never approved the release of these performances because he thought he could do more justice to these sonatas on a later occasion - forgetting that this music is better than it can ever be played. He needn't have worried. These are superb performances, and some are great ones.
The five sonatas with the earliest opus numbers are new to Serkin's discography. The best are the four recorded in 1970 when the pianist was a youthful 67. His conception of the F minor Sonata is not gigantic as Sviatoslav Richter's (or as Serkin's was on other occasions), but the others - particularly opus 26 - bristle with energy. Serkin's 'Waldstein' and opus 109, which were recorded in 1976, are not as impressive pianistically as the long-out-of-print mono versions the pianist recorded in the early 1950s and which deserve reissue. But his powerful opus 111 from 1967 is much better - more heroically scaled and more energetic - than the version he recorded in the early 1980s for Deutsche Grammophon.
The best thing in this mid-priced three-CD set, however, is the version of opus 110. Why the pianist never approved this 1960 performance for release but did approve the lackluster performance he recorded about 15 years later is a mystery. This is extraordinary playing: There is a sheer mastery of the notes that Serkin was not always credited for having, a vision of the work that is sublime and a nervous energy that makes the scherzo fly and the final moments of the concluding fugue approach warp speed in their delirious rhapsodizing.”
- Stephen Wigler, THE BALTIMORE SUN, 7 Aug., 1994
“I loved Opus 110, which begins with a sublime, rustling first movement and ends with a formidable fugue. The work seemed to me to occupy a wholly other realm: elusive, mystical, beyond style, beyond era. Just playing it well wasn’t enough. You had to take listeners with you to its distant cosmos….if ‘masterpiece’ can be meaningless, Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, composed between 1795 and 1822, are deservedly touchstones.
These works took the sonata genre to a new dimension: multi-movement, episodic and often fitful, yet also ingeniously integrated. The pieces abound in challenges that were unprecedented for their time and remain daunting. So much the better, Beethoven believed. He once told a publisher, ‘What is difficult is also beautiful and good’. He wanted pianists to sweat….yet Beethoven also touches mystical sublimity, as in the final minutes of the last sonata.
Schnabel was the pre-eminent Beethoven pianist of his day. Why Beethoven?, he was once asked. ‘I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed’, he answered. What Schnabel strove for is suggested by a comment Beethoven reportedly made, describing his compositional method. ‘The working out in breadth, length, height and depth begins in my head’, he said, ‘and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me’.
That’s what Schnabel’s accounts of these sonatas achieve: breadth and sweep, even when the tempos he takes are so rushed that passages turn muddy and phrases gets clipped short. His remarkably fluid technique comes through continually - for example, in the buoyant, spiraling finale of the Sonata #3 in C (Op. 2, #3). Yes, he drops some notes, but the shape and character of the playing are marvelous….Schnabel had to be enticed into the studio. Recordings, as he later wrote, ‘are against the very nature’ of a performance, which is meant ‘to happen but once, to be absolutely ephemeral and unrepeatable’.
Serkin, who set the highest standards for himself, said in a 1969 interview that he ‘never had the courage’ to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas. Then it was announced that in honor of the composer’s 200th, in 1970, he would play all 32 in a series of programs at Carnegie Hall. He wound up playing less than half of them in four concerts. The last took place on Dec. 16, Beethoven’s birthday. The second half was devoted to the gargantuan, still intimidating ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, which ends with a complex, tangled fugue to end all fugues. This was not a piece Serkin was known for. The performance was majestic and exhilarating. Though I could sense Serkin sweating, as Beethoven would have wanted, he triumphed in the end…..Looking dead serious, Serkin said: ‘It took me 50 years’.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 3 July, 2020