WORKS: Piano Sonata in E, Op. 109; ‘Piano Sonata in A flat, Op. 110; ‘Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, Cello Sonata in E minor, Op. 38, Piano Concerto No. 16 in D, K451
PERFORMER: Rudolf Serkin (piano), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); COE/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: 474 328-2 Reissue (1982-8)
This curious assortment of recordings, reissued in Serkin’s centenary year, forms a touching memento, though it’s difficult not to feel that by the time DG took Serkin under its wing his great days were already over. He was in his mid-eighties when he gave this performance of Mozart’s K451 Concerto with Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, recorded live, and his frailty is all too apparent. Although the fingers are as reliable as ever, the playing is very subdued throughout, and there are times when you have to strain to hear the solo part at all. As for the Brahms E minor Cello Sonata with Rostropovich, the almost meanderingly relaxed account of the opening movement has a haunting quality all of its own, but the concluding fugue is distinctly short on drama and intensity.
The last three Beethoven sonatas, recorded only 18 months or so before the Mozart, make a much stronger impression, and the opening movement of Op. 111 is a piece that suits Serkin’s gritty style to perfection. Certainly, for all his wonderful integrity as an artist, he was not a pianist renowned for the beauty of his tone; and in the variations that conclude both the Opp. 109 and 111 Sonatas one misses an essential atmosphere of serenity, as well as a floating quality to the sound. The Austrian Radio recording captures the Serkin experience faithfully, but if you’re after a pianist of his generation who makes these works into a profound spiritual journey, you’d do better to turn to Solomon. Misha Donat