Hearing Peter Serkin give a sublime piano recital Monday night, I couldn't help but wish he were running for president. Not that he would get many votes. He cultivates next to no charisma. His manner is sober, his dress a three-piece, striped banker's suit. He could be a diplomat or scholar from an earlier, more formal age. He doesn't smile much onstage. His program, while not a challenge to the listener, was also not meant for popularity. He did not manage to fill Walt Disney Concert Hall.
But through his playing, Serkin represents a deeply personal way of looking at the world that is informed by history yet also transcends it in profoundly successful ways. He does this by appearing to empty his mind not of knowledge but of tradition, thus making it susceptible to fresh insight. He butts the familiar against the unfamiliar, takes everything with intense seriousness and then accepts the results. You left this recital knowing more than when it began, but not necessarily knowing why.
One imponderable was what might have been the unifying thread to a program that included almost no music originally written for the piano. Each half began, unusually, with transcriptions of Renaissance music and ended with famous pieces by Bach and Mozart. The wild card, and the one work for piano, was Webern's Variations, composed in the 1930s.
Serkin began with a vocal motet by Josquin Desprez, "Ave Christe, immolate" "remade" for piano by the contemporary American composer Charles Wuorinen (whose new piano concerto Serkin will premiere in Boston later this season). Then came Webern's strict serialism. Next a Bach choral prelude (originally organ music). Mozart's Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 310, ended the first half.
Although Serkin displays little physical expression in his playing, that doesn't mean he exhibits little emotion in his interpretations. In fact, this first half was a progression from abstraction to passion. The Josquin -- richly harmonic vocal music heard in disembodied piano sonorities, beautifully weighed and gauged under Serkin's precise fingers -- was an invitation to bask in sonority. Webern, played with force and ringing tone, had drama, but the drama of structure. The Bach chorale was a palate cleanser but also an upbeat to the Mozart.
Serkin launched into Mozart's sonata, which could easily be mistaken for slight music (especially if played on the lighter-toned fortepiano), with the intensity of tragedy. We cannot view the world abstractly, the pianist seemed to be saying with his probing, surprisingly dramatic and romanticized approach, or this is what happens. Things we slight have a way of meaning more than we expect.
The second half suggested ways of lightening up, through, of all things from this reserved pianist, dance. This time, the early music was dance-inspired pieces by English Renaissance composers John Bull, John Dowland and William Byrd that came from the "Fitzwilliam Virginal Book," played without virginal flimsiness and with full-bore piano technique, pedal and all. Mozart's Rondo in A minor, K. 511, was a return to gravity but not tragedy in a lyrical and airy interpretation of a poignant, proto-romantic score -- an interpretation that was as untypical as was the heaviness in the earlier sonata.
Serkin concluded with Bach's "Italian" Concerto and treated it as celebration: grand display in the outer movements, stargazing wonder in the lovely middle movement. The encore was Stravinsky's "Piano Rag Music" -- sharp, rhythmic, fun.
So why Serkin for president? For no other reason than that, at least as a pianist, he improves everything he touches.