Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1; Strauss: Burleske / Szell, Serkin

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At his best, Serkin's driving energy, fierce intelligence, and his unfailing lucidity of touch produced recordings that do that rare thing: they transcend the medium. This is one such.

Serkin is said to have disliked recording and his legacy is mixed, technically and artistically. Yet, at best, his driving energy, his fierce intelligence, his quick mind, and (until comparatively recently) his unfailing lucidity of touch often produced recordings that do that rare thing: they transcend the medium.

One such recording is his 1968 Cleveland account of Brahms's D minor Piano Concerto which Sony have recently reissued...coupled with another Serkin speciality, Richard Strauss's Burleske for piano and orchestra. Serkin "at the peak of his form, emotionally, intellectually, and technically" is how Trevor Harvey described the performance in these columns in May 1969 and I wouldn't disagree with that. From the piano's first entry it is evident that we are in the presence of a musical plain-dealer who is something more besides. The touch is plain but never monochrome, resolute but never harsh. There are miracles of dynamic shading yet dynamic changes that are elementally swift and steep. Above all, there is a revelatory way with rhythm, full of potency and drive in quicker music, and turning the more reflective passages into slow sustained acts of transcendental enquiry. As a reading this has something of Arrau's weight and profundity (Philips D 420 702-2PSL, 11/87) matched to Curzon's lyricism and sense of forward drive (Decca D 417 641-2DH, 10/87, also conducted by Szell). It is not better than either but it has some of the best qualities of both. There are those, it must be said, who are distracted by Serkin's stamping pedalwork and by breathing that has Serkin, like Arrau, cross-hatching the lie of a phrase with his own peculiar form of musical emphysema. Such things don't worry me unduly. You can't expect a man to go up the north face of the Eiger, silently, in carpet-slippers; and, in the slow movement, I find the counterpointing of Serkin's stressful breathing, with the sublimely conjured and spun melody that floats from it, to be a moving re-enactment of the composer's own recalcitrance in the face of the brute marble out of which this concerto is sculpted.

Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra are, needless to say, superb accompanists, and the sound is excellent in an appropriately forthright way, with pianissimos that are not so much pianissimo as properly hushed and innig. I don't agree with the reviewer who found Serkin's account of the Strauss Burleske to be lacking in poetry. Rather, it glints; it is sharp and witty. Above all, the performance redeems the work from its principal failing: the sense it can give of being marginally but fatally over length... [I]f you want a truly worthy memorial of this great pianist from the current batch, there is absolutely no doubt that the Brahms/Strauss disc is the one to have.

-- Gramophone [7/1991]

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: SONY42261

  • UPC: 074644226126

  • Label: Sony

  • Composer: Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss

  • Conductor: George Szell

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Cleveland Orchestra

  • Performer: Rudolf Serkin


  1. Concerto for Piano no 1 in D minor, Op. 15

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Cleveland Orchestra

    Performer: Rudolf Serkin (Piano)

    Conductor: George Szell

  2. Burleske for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, AV 85

    Composer: Richard Strauss

    Ensemble: Cleveland Orchestra

    Performer: Rudolf Serkin (Piano)

    Conductor: George Szell