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Music Review

Serkin solo, with variety to spare

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2010

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ROCKPORT — Peter Serkin plays softly better than any pianist going. Most pianists can drop down to a dramatically impressive whisper: a sudden burst of delicacy, a breathless hush. But what is so exceptional about Serkin — who played a solo recital at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Friday, the first classical fruits of Rockport Music’s new, year-round schedule — is the variety of touch and mood he brings forth without raising his pianistic voice.

Serkin also plays loud, of course, his specialty sharp, ringing accents that seem to hang in the air. But it’s the detail in lower dynamics that so effectively sets up the shouts. The combination was on fine display in Charles Wuorinen’s 2007 “Scherzo,’’ a wild, quick-witted piece of no-holds-barred modernism. The texture is fiercely active, but Serkin’s ability to shift the depth of focus — the rattles and bangs first at a suspenseful distance and then in bright close-up — made for dangerous fun, like an intellectually inclined poltergeist, knocking over modern jazz records and Jackson Pollock paintings. In Serkin’s hands, “Scherzo’’ was a grand entertainment.

The rest of the program was indicative of Serkin’s own intellectual curiosity. “Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La,’’ the English Renaissance composer John Bull’s contrapuntal edifice built on the humble foundation of the first six notes of the scale, started the concert; J.S. Bach’s similarly noble Suite in C minor (BWV 997), anchored by an expansive fugue that also makes thematic use of scalar figures, opened the second half. Both also benefited from Serkin’s detailed quiet, each melodic strand alive in countless small ways, contributing to the whole’s serene momentum. Smooth clouds of sound formed the backdrop for Claude Debussy’s “Six Épigraphes Antiques,’’ rich imitation archaicisms juxtaposed with Bull’s actual ones; against a haze of harmony, Serkin laid down finely-chiseled, chant-like melody.

Both sumptuous and structured types of quiet marked Serkin’s final set, a trio of works by Frédéric Chopin: the etude-like A-flat-major Impromptu, Op. 29; the ruminative, enigmatic Nocturne in E major, Op. 62, No. 2; and the rarely heard Bolero, Op. 19, a showpiece that becomes intensely obsessed with its skipping main theme. The plushness of the Debussy was here, but also the Bach’s durable eloquence, revealing both facets of Chopin’s achievement and reinforcing the contrapuntal spine at the heart of his music without skimping on his sonic allure. Serkin musically speaks volumes, no matter what the volume.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

PETER SERKIN, piano

Presented by Rockport Music

At: Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Friday