A Pianist’s Final Message: Overlooked Works by a Son of Bach

    Peter Serkin had a lifelong fascination with the piano works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Perhaps he noticed in him a kindred spirit. Like Mr. Serkin, whose father was the nice pianist Rudolf Serkin, C.P.E. was the son of a well-known musician: Johann Sebastian Bach.

    Mr. Serkin particularly cherished the six books of sonatas, rondos and fantasias — 37 items in all — that Emanuel Bach, as he was usually recognized, collected and revealed for “Kenner und Liebhaber” (“Connoisseurs and Amateurs”), because the volumes had been titled.

    That these items had been so little recognized baffled Mr. Serkin. During the 18th century, should you talked about Bach, most individuals assumed you had been referring to Emanuel (1714-88), whose renown in that interval eclipsed that of his father (1685-1750). The youthful Bach was particularly recognized for his elegant, creative keyboard works, which embrace some 150 sonatas.

    While sometimes Mr. Serkin would carry out Emanuel Bach’s works in recital, he largely performed them for himself and recorded some items on his personal label, which used cheap tools and which he flippantly known as Lousy Sound Discs.

    But over eight days in March 2018, Mr. Serkin sat down and recorded the whole “Kenner und Liebhaber,” practically 5 hours of music. Newly launched by Vivace Records, it was his ultimate recording mission earlier than he died in January, at 72, of pancreatic most cancers.

    The periods got here throughout a interval when Mr. Serkin thought — or dared to hope — that his most cancers was in remission. He had endured a grueling yr of remedies and surgical procedure, however had come via, felt higher, and began performing once more. Within a yr, although, his most cancers returned.

    In a current interview, Marty Krystall, a pal of Mr. Serkin and Vivace’s founder, mentioned that at the same time as Mr. Serkin’s well being deteriorated, he remained immersed within the intricate enhancing of those Bach discs, proper into the ultimate week of his life.

    “Peter was always a workaholic,” Mr. Krystall mentioned. “I never saw anybody with that kind of stamina.”

    I ought to have recognized these exceptional items, however for probably the most half I didn’t. It is smart that this lesser-known repertory appealed to Mr. Serkin. His exploratory streak — which drew him to composers of our time, corresponding to Wolpe, Messiaen, Takemitsu and Lieberson — was additionally activated by the uncared for Emanuel Bach, who was, like these modern masters, a looking composer who wanted an advocate.

    Mr. Serkin’s curiosity on this Bach started early in his profession, when he learn Emanuel’s influential treatise “On the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments.” Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms all “loved and had keen interest in C.P.E. Bach’s music,” Mr. Serkin provides within the recording’s liner notes. These recordings have the potential to unfold the phrase at this time.

    Bach was on the forefront of writing three-movement sonatas, most of them following the fast-slow-fast format that took maintain. If the renown he loved throughout his lifetime didn’t carry over into the 20th century, that will have been as a result of he was perceived as a transitional determine. He got here of age on the finish of the Baroque interval and lived into the Classical age of Haydn and Mozart. When you bridge eras, it’s simple to slide into the divide. But the “Kenner und Liebhaber” works show Bach embracing the stylistic flux of his time with authority — and a contact of the maverick.

    I used to be hooked by the very first monitor of the primary disc: the Prestissimo motion of Sonata I in C (Book One). Nodding to the keyboard toccatas of Bach’s father, the piece is sort of a spiraling stream of notes, tossed between the fingers. But it retains veering off impulsively into new instructions and shifting into surprising harmonic patches. Mr. Serkin performs with pristine readability, however not overly so. Some passages are wealthy with milky colorings. And there are hurtling, jagged moments when Mr. Serkin has the music sounding nearly improvised.

    The Rondo II in E (Book Four) is one other gem, a pensive, quizzical piece with a flowing right-hand line that’s wistfully but slyly decorous. It qualifies, the musicologist Peter Laki writes within the liner notes, as one in all Bach’s “modulating rondos.” There are moments when it’s inconceivable to guess the place the music is heading.

    Mr. Laki writes that Bach was generally known as the daddy of the “empfindsamer Stil” (“sensitive style”), exemplified by the tender, soft-spoken an Andante of Sonata III in B minor (Book One), a brief motion that serves, in impact, as a transition to the sonata’s chic finale.

    The Fantasia II in C (Book Six) has the impish playfulness of a Haydn finale, full with a penchant for sudden stops and suspenseful pauses. Yet in lower than 5 minutes, the piece lives as much as its title, with fantastical episodes, generally dark-hued and ominous. Mr. Serkin brings crispness and comedic aptitude to his scintillating account.

    Day after day throughout the recording periods, he did take after take, hour after hour. It was Mr. Krystall who lastly beginning insisting on common breaks. Death hovered over the periods in additional methods than one. The day earlier than Mr. Serkin started work, his good pal Buell Neidlinger, a bassist and cellist who performed with each jazz giants and classical artists, died at 82 of a coronary heart assault.

    A mentor to Mr. Serkin, he was to have taken half within the recording mission, providing common suggestions. “Peter was in tears,” Mr. Krystall mentioned. “Just beside himself.” The album is devoted to Mr. Neidlinger.

    Four months earlier than he died, Mr. Serkin wrote to me with regrets about laying aside a gathering we had deliberate. Even on unhealthy days, he added, “I am smiling more than usually, more genuinely, and more since being sick, I think.” He was listening to music, Thomas Tallis and Stravinsky, and “looking at Bach.”

    That, in fact, included Emanuel. The day earlier than he died, he despatched his final enhancing requests to Mr. Krystall, together with a mailing listing of buddies he needed the recording despatched to. He requested for a notice to be included within the packages: “In affectionate friendship and with love — Peter.”


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    A Pianist’s Final Message: Overlooked Works by a Son of Bach

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