Peter Serkin returns to Seattle for Messiaen and Mozart

By R.M. Campbell

The Seattle Symphony program had plenty of merit — Ravel, Messiaen, Mozart and Brahms — and so did the playing and conducting Thursday night at Benaroya Hall. Douglas Boyd was the conductor and pianist Peter Serkin the soloist. The Scottish conductor is new to Seattle, Serkin is not.

The young conductor has a career that is ever widening, beginning in United Kingdom and expanding to the continent and North America. He is music director of the Manchester Camerata, principal conductor of the Musikkollegium Winterthur and principal guest conductor of the Colorado Symphony and City of London Sinfonia. Little wonder. He demonstrated Thursday in Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” how he can create vibrant textures, clarity and balance and readily evoke the 18th century along with the 20th. The Ravel had remarkable restraint and balance in which everything had its place. The reading sustained admirable evenness. Ben Hausmann’s oboe solo was notable.

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony presented quite different challenges to Boyd. It is such a big, meaty work that you want it to fill the concert hall with its fantastic sonorities. And with Boyd, aided by SSO musicians at full strength, that was accomplished. The symphony is a glorious work of late Romanticism, a monument of 19th-century Western music. Boyd gave the piece a life force of its own, generous in spirit and expansive in outlook. There was weight to the sound and a profile that combined strength and grandness and a sense of forward motion, with poignancy and serenity.

Serkin’s contributions came with the Messiaen, his “Oiseaux exotiques,” and Mozart, his Rondo from Piano Concerto in D Major (K. 382). The Messiaen is not to everyone’s taste, and it is not Messiaen of the first cabin. Nature should be evoked, its birds particularly, but the most that emerged was the piece’s wierdness. No fault of Serkin who obviously likes the work a lot. The Mozart Rondo was a different story. The work is a charming, little piece, designed to suit Viennese taste for sweets. Nothing with Serkin would be cloying, of course, and gave the piece transparent textures and crystalline clarity which made the work even more delicious. Alfred Einstein, Mozart’s great biographer, called the Rondo the “first instance of Mozart’s having to write down to the taste of the Vienna public.” Never mind, the piece is full of wit, and Serkin’s treatment of it made seem even more so.

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