The world-renowned pianist, followed by his page-turner, walked out on stage, bowed professionally, and took his seat at the piano. I held my breath as pianist Peter Serkin coaxed the first note out of the Steinway in Duke University’s Reynolds Theater at the start of this program, part of Duke Performance’s ongoing Piano Recital Series.

But truth be told, his program, although unusual, did not create the breathtaking magic for which I had hoped.  It was like a soufflé gone flat. He played well, to be sure: he characterized a meticulous tone and a strong left hand base throughout the evening.  And he knew how to finish a piece well: he took the time at the end of nearly every piece to end it satisfyingly.

His program included Brahms’ Theme with Variations in D minor, arranged from the String Sextet, Op. 18; Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques; selections from György Kurtág’s Játékok; Charles Wuorinen’s Scherzo; Bach’s Suite in C minor for Lute-Cembalo; and three Chopin pieces (Impromptu, Op. 29, Nocturne, Op. 62/2, and Bolero, Op. 1). These pieces, with perhaps the exception of the impromptu, all have one thing in common: they are not well known, and for a reason.

Serkin specializes in impressionistic and modern pieces, and in the Debussy, Kurtág, and Wuorinen, he did a lovely job of moving effortlessly around the keyboard, all the while listening to the pedal and overtones he was creating.  There was only one problem: the pieces sounded almost the same.  He used the exact same techniques for each piece, and after he played these pieces in a row, the listener felt oddly empty and distracted.  This was partly because of the quality of the pieces and partly because Serkin approached each one the same way.  After a few measures of each piece, the audience knew what the rest of it would sound like, and it was easy to lose interest. The Játékok, in particular, was bizarre, in that each selection was extremely short, less than a page long.  The audience was almost afraid to blink, lest they miss a whole movement, since each one was so short.  We felt like our ears were jumping from movement to movement in this series of selections, hardly having time to adjust to one movement, let alone think about it and enjoy it, before the next movement started.

Serkin played the more classical pieces on the program nearly the same as well: his Bach touch sounded like his Chopin touch. In addition, the Bach suite itself is not one of Bach’s most brilliant compositions. This, coupled with Serkin’s uniform playing, meant — again — that after hearing the first page or so, the listener knew what would happen during the rest of the piece and hardly had a need to listen to the rest. I found myself wishing throughout for salt to spice the pieces up; it was all rather bland.

The first two Chopin pieces (the impromptu and the nocturne) were played with the same reserve Serkin displayed in the Bach. The impromptu was bright and bubbly, but it did not suit the style of Chopin — the tone was thin and meticulous. The last piece on the program was the only unpredictable one; although a lesser-known work of Chopin, it was enjoyable because Serkin appeared more animated and less stiff. This, along with his wonderful sense of rhythm, made for a nice end to a mostly sterile program.

His first encore, Chopin’s “Butterfly” Étude, reverted back to the careful, thin tone that characterized much of his playing and did not leave the listener convinced.  His second encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in F Sharp, Op. 15/2, was surprisingly beautiful; he chose a tempo that moved, and he built up an exciting and convincing climax.

Although Chopin’s style in general was not his forte, beautiful moments shone through. These I savored, since it was difficult to find these in the hardly known Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Kurtág, and Wuorinen. I expected much more variety but instead left with a sleepy, unsatisfied feeling as I tried to recollect which I liked better: the pieces not so well composed, but played well, or the beautiful pieces that were not played quite convincingly. Which is better, a master chef fixing boxed mac and cheese or an amateur cook preparing filet mignon?  In the end, this program didn’t produced the magic hoped for at Duke University.

This recital series ends March 5 with a recital by Rafal Blechacz. See our calendar for details..

*The author, a piano student at Meredith College, is one of CVNC‘s interns this year.