Age may be sufficient justification for veneration, but it does not automatically insure the survival of an artist's claim to fame.
Come March 28, Rudolf Serkin will celebrate his 83rd birthday. He returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday night to make up the recital he missed in December because of illness, and it was only human that his devoted public should be concerned as to his pianistic condition.
It was not to worry.
Serkin looked as physically fit and spry as ever, and he played like the giant of the piano that he has long been. There was scarcely a trace of the nervous tension that has sometimes marred his playing; he could hardly have been more relaxed or more concentrated.
And he has never seemed more bountifully inspired. He poured out music with the authority of a patriarch but with the urgent spontaneity of a heart and mind eternally young.
Under that white heat, a slip or two of the finger would have been pardoned, but there was nothing to pardon. The technical apparatus functioned with marvelous smoothness and efficiency, always the willing servant of the commanding musical authority.
At the beginning, Serkin set out to demonstrate his idea of Mozart in the Fantasie in C minor, (K. 475) that was written as an introduction to the already composed Sonata in C minor (K. 457), which followed. Serkin has no traffic with the prissy, bloodless Mozart of the current generation of self-confessed experts.
A purist might call him a Romantic, but that is gross exaggeration. He searches for the expressive content in tone, style and tempo, but he never forces the music out of the classical frame. He finds an infinite variety within narrow boundaries; nothing is understated but neither is anything overstated. It is Mozart for the age of the Steinway but still Mozart that the composer's own period might have recognized.
After the endless stream of pianists who utilize Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata for a heartless exercise in finger dexterity, Serkin's version had the force of a revelation.
He toned down the first movement to a sort of rumbling of distant thunder with occasional lightning flashes. There was no thought of turning it into an etude for fast fingers.
The brief meditation of the slow movement served as transition to an entrancingly simple statement of the Rondo that unfolded like a flower. There was nothing theatrical in the concept, but only an adroit actor could have built it so skillfully to a shining climax. At the end the audience instantly rose to cheer.
Shubert's Sonata in A (D.959) strings pearls and pebbles side by side indiscriminately, but Serkin's emphasis was always on the pearls. The dull stretches were minimized, the poignant melodies floated like heart-piercing Shubertian lieder. The Laendler-like Scherzo was a particular gem of pianistic sparkle.
There were many recalls and much cheering but no encores.