Serkin masterfully scales the summit of Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations

February 05, 2012

Peter Serkin performed Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variationa Friday night at Mandel Hall.

If asked to name the summit of Beethoven’s achievements, some would point to the Ninth Symphony or the Missa Solemnis, others the Violin Concerto, and many the late string quartets.

But listening to Peter Serkin perform the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli Friday night at Mandel Hall, one might justifiably point to this composition as the work that most strikingly manifests Beethoven’s genius.

In 1819, the music publisher Diabelli invited fifty composers to each write a variation on his innocuous dance tune. Beethoven dismissed the idea calling Diabelli’s theme a “cobbler’s patch.” But over time as a kind of personal challenge—and a break from completing the Missa Solemnis—Beethoven worked out twenty variations, returning to the score three years later to add thirteen more.

The vast riches that Beethoven mined from Diabelli’s ditzy little waltz are staggering, even set against the composer’s multitude of masterpieces. Spanning an hour, the set morphs the theme’s harmonic structure for an astounding variety of expression: first ironic and angry–seemingly ridiculing the base material–to improving it, spinning off variations of his own variations, and ultimately elevating the theme to a supremely eloquent, even sublime level of expression.

No pianist currently before the pubic possesses the blend of intellectual rigor and stainless-steel technique of Serkin, and his powerful, deeply expressive performance of Beethoven’s monumental work for the University of Chicago Presents series was one of the highlights of this and recent music seasons.

At times Serkin’s tense, thrusting style may have sacrificed some of Beethoven’s quirky humor and charm. But the pianist had a sure feel for the work’s vast architecture and scale, from the mock grandeur of the first variation through to the jarring bursts of hectic bravura and abrupt modulations. Serkin brought refined feeling and depth to the ruminative 15th variation and rose to the challenge of the final pages in supreme style, achieving a kind of transfigured spiritual eloquence at the summit of Beethoven’ s keyboard edifice.

He was rewarded with a vociferous and prolonged ovation–not a regular occurrence at Mandel Hall. Most pianists would have gone to their dressing room to soak their hands in water after tackling such a demanding work. But after four curtain calls, Serkin returned for an apt encore: the opening Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, rendered with a simple, valedictory feeling that felt just right.

On the first half Serkin offered a bracing prelude to the Beethoven epic with three 20th-century works.

Stefan Wolpe’s Toccata in Three Parts led off the evening. Wolpe fled the Nazis in 1933, eventually settling in the U.S. where he enjoyed a long and distinguished teaching career. This thorny 1941 work reflects the unsettled times and Serkin nervy virtuosity fully conveyed the tense, spiky angularity of the score.

No pianist has provided greater advocacy for the music of Toru Takemitsu than Serkin. In his For Away, Serkin was fully in synch with the Japanese composer’s delicate soft-hued impressionism, with its pensive filigree at times erupting into percussive outbursts.

Charles Wuorinen’s Adagio was written for and dedicated to Serkin. The pianist’s gift for highly concentrated playing was manifest in this somber 12-minute meditation, Serkin conveying the spare, searching expression of the widely spaced notes and steep extremes with tensile strength and subtly calibrated dynamics.

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