02 February 2020
The American pianist, who premiered works by Henze and Berio as well as performing the more standard fare of Bach and Beethoven, died yesterday Saturday 1 February at the age of 72.
He had been fighting pancreatic cancer for some time.
His father, Rudolf Serkin, was one of the top Beethovenians of his day, and his maternal grandfather was the influential conductor and violinist Adolf Busch.
Listen to father and son perform Mozart's Concerto No. 10 K. 365 for 2 Pianos
Peter Adolf Serkin was born in New York City on 24 July, 1947 (he was given the middle name Adolf in honor of his grandfather). He enrolled at the Curtis Institute at the age of 11, and studied with the polish-born pianist Mieczysław Horszowski as well as with Lee Luvisi and his father.
His career started off on the right foot, with his first two recordings – of Bach and Schubert – released by the RCA label when he was 18. A year later, In 1966, he was nominated for a Grammy for his Goldberg Variations recording.
But he felt burdened by his heritage and what was expected of him, and in 1968 he turned his back on his career – not touching the piano for several months.
Time away from music was spent in rural Mexico with his family. Some eight months later he returned to the concert platform and the recording studio, energised and with a strong desire to champion contemporary music.
A recording of Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus at age 25 became iconic, with noted 'deep understanding of the composer’s sound-world and its emotional extremes, coupled with considerable instrumental prowess.'
He formed the chamber music ensemble Tashi, its signature piece being Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. As well as performing and recording (still with the same label, RCA/Sony), he enjoyed teaching – holding posts at New York’s Juilliard and Mannes schools and spending many summers teaching at Tanglewood Festival.
Serkin was later nominated for Best Classical Vocal Performance at the 52nd Grammy Awards (2010) for his work on the album Recital at Ravinia with the late American soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
British journalist and Pianist contributor Jessica Duchen recalls: 'I heard him several times at the Wigmore Hall and interviewed him once on the phone. I was amazed he agreed, but if I remember rightly, he just decided on a whim that he'd do it. What a wonderful musician! A true artist. I will never forget his Vingt Regards. His recording of the 'Hammerklavier' on a fortepiano was pure magic. It's like sitting next to Beethoven himself.'
Peter Serkin performs Bach's Goldberg Variations:
Main image: © Kathy Chapman