Scion of two families of musicians, Peter Serkin operates in the continuing tradition of thinking pianists: His every musical appearance provokes, stimulates and illuminates.
Monday night in the Pavilion of the Music Center Serkin fils provoked with an intermissionless program devoted to two sets of variations, Anton Webern's Opus 27, and J. S. Bach's Aria and 30 Variations, those named after Johann Goldberg.
It was an idea that made sense. The Webern work, in its spidery, meticulous and deeply felt way, made a brief and serious prelude to the grandeur of Bach's vision. And, to take a break after Webern's eight-minute set would be ludicrous, as well as mood-shattering.
In practice, the juxtaposition of a work written in 1936 with one first set down in 1742 also succeeded, especially as Serkin played them: with the same kind of probing contemplation. This time around, however, there was little stimulation in his performance.
For those of us who used to think the "Goldberg" Variations comprised equal parts of songfulness and bravura, the 38-year-old pianist gave us something else to think on. These "Goldberg" Variations proved to be earnest, sober, deadpan and long-suffering, visions of endurance, not joy.
In long, self-absorbed musical lines, in sculptured phrases and well-considered ornamentation, in polished passagework, Serkin produced a version of the work which stressed its passive, rather than its active, elements.
Though he surmounted all technical challenges with ease and without any apparent self-consciousness, one sensed no feeling of achievement or pleasure in his playing, only a certain self-denial. To enjoy the kinetic moments, or to share the lyric ones, seemed quite outside of Serkin's intentions here.
The total performance then, encompassing, with all (or virtually all) repeats taken, 84 minutes, thus seemed longer than it actually was. No encore was offered.