Tributes pour in for the late Peter Serkin

Tributes pour in for the late Peter Serkin


norman lebrecht

February 02, 2020

The US pianist died yesterday after a long illness, aged 72.

He was more loved than he ever knew.


Pianist Eliane Lust: I was 16 years old when I first heard & met him at the Spoleto Festival Italy where we were both performing. My biggest teen crush ever … all dressed top to bottom in white, handsomest guy there, performing the complete Vingt Regards outdoors with just a short 5 minute (sweat) break in the very middle. Dude. A performance never paralleled since, to be perfectly honest.

Pianist Shai Wosner:

Who on earth ends (!) a recital with the Schoenberg Suite Op. 25?
And what an ending it was. Only Peter Serkin could take this piece of perhaps the worst reputation in all of piano music – and bring it across like a rock star.
I was screaming bravo at the top of my lungs after that Gigue not only because I knew it could not be played better but also because, still a student, I knew that this was an altering experience which showed that if you play the music you truly believe in you can make an audience go with you no matter how cuckoo they might find this music otherwise.
In his hands Schoenberg was alive and well – not academic and dour but subversive and witty and infectiously exciting.
That is only one of many memories of his playing that etched themselves already in my student concert-going days.
There was a Brahms D Minor with the New York Philharmonic that I will never, ever forget. And a Brahms B-flat encountered on YouTube which had me glued to my computer like a child. Or a recital at Carnegie Hall ending with an almost blindingly luminous Beethoven “Les Adieux”. How poignant that title is today.

RIP Mr. Serkin.

Pianist Sylvia Kahan: Peter was my chamber music coach at Tanglewood, and it’s thanks to him that I was introduced to the beauties and intricacies of Stefan Wolpe’s music. A few years later, I became piano teacher to his children Elena, Maya, and Stefan. I remember how intimidating it was to teach those lessons in a room largely taken up by his father Rudolph Serkin’s music library and Steinway grand. But Peter was always so hospitable, and never failed to praise my teaching. He was a towering musician, and I shall miss his warmth and his remarkable pianism and intellectual prowess.

Orchestra administrator Ed Yim: I will always regret never finding a way to program the Reger Piano concerto Peter always wanted to do with one of the orchestras I worked for. I remember when he came to play Hindemieth with Sawallisch and Philadelphia, he was flummoxed by the somewhat old-school ways of dear Maestro Sawallisch and called Manny Ax to say “I thought you liked this conductor? He’s telling me exactly how to play my part.” and Manny said, “Yes, that’s why I love him.” He also eschewed post-concert dinners (he was warm but private), and we got into a ritual over the years of my stopping by during the week to say “You don’t want to go out to dinner this week, right?” and he would say “Right. But thanks for asking” with a twinkle in his eye. What a great artist.

Critic Tim Page: More than any other group, it was Tashi (pianist Peter Serkin, violinist Ida Kavafian, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and cellist Fred Sherry) that brought Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” to public attention, presenting it in unexpected places such as the Bottom Line. I don’t think a day went by in 1976 when this didn’t find its way to my turntable. You can hear it all here.

Sonia Alexandra Knussen: I’m so incredibly sad.

Since Oldie left this world in 2018, I have frequently heard Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 playing on the car radio. I cry almost every time, just a little bit, as I’m caught off guard thinking of Oldie and Peter in Japan and London having a blast in rehearsals. The photo below is from their Japan performance of the Brahms. I was in the audience.

Oldie wrote his Variations and Prayer Bell Sketch for Peter to play. When he wrote Variations it was in the days of fax and answering machines. I remember that the phone would ring and Dad would shout “No! don’t answer! It’s Pete!“ and sure enough we’d get to hear the first ever readings of sections of the piano piece, that had just been faxed to Peter in the states from our flat in London, played over the phone from NY and recorded onto our answering machine tape.

So much love to the entire Serkin family, extended family, friends and students.

Label owner David Starobin: Peter Serkin passed away today. He was a wonderful musician who touched our lives deeply. Here he is with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, from a recording session of Peter Lieberson’s “Rilke Songs”. I remember these sessions as if they were yesterday, and will always be grateful for them.



  • V.Lind says:

    Wow. I hope he did know — these are some of the most heartfelt tributes I have ever read of a musician. And, in a week that has seen the deaths of three widely different but much-loved figures — Kobe Bryant, Nicholas Parsons and now Peter Serkin — these expressions of loss stand out.

    • Anon says:

      Please don’t compare a great pianist to a rapist who got away with it.

      • V.Lind says:

        I’m not. I was the first person to raise the issue of his rape accusation, if you look at the Moonlight Sonata thread. i worded my comment very carefully.

        In my mind’s eye I was considering the semi-hysterical response to Kobe Bryant’s death with this outpouring of genuine loss, mirrored in the original post about the fact of his death yesterday. I have also heard and read some response to Nicholas Parsons, and seen the love and affection there. The KB reactions, aside from his family’s, have the theatricality we have expected since people started aping the then-sincere reactions to the death of the Princess of Wales.

        (And stick around — there will be lawsuits flying in the helicopter crash, and you can bet the late superstar’s estate is going to be taken to court for his part in the fact that bird was in the air at all).

      • MacroV says:

        Most of us are not the worst thing we have done. Kobe was a transcendent basketball player and while I’d never excuse his alleged rape, he showed remorse and sought to be a better person going forward. Most indications are that he succeeded.

        • V.Lind says:

          I have some tendency to agree with that. I have been thinking about it quite a bit. Does a transgression, however serious, mean a man can never be forgiven if he genuinely tries to change?I also get the feeling he changed for the better.

          But from what I know about sports culture, it may not have been the only time, though it may have been the last. I wonder if he only changed because he got caught. However, being the father of daughters, and clearly not wanting to lose his wife (to the tune of a $4 million diamond ring) he had incentives to clean up his life, and he was obviously a proud and devoted father.

          But perhaps a foolish one — was he determined to get her to that game despite the weather?

          Anyway, RIP all of them.

      • Karl says:

        Please don’t bring false rape allegations into a thread about the death of Peter Serkin.

  • Amos says:

    It is a musical crime that RCA never completed the Mozart Concerto series that PS and AS carried off with such panache, wit, and style. As the son of a famous player, he managed to have a major career leaving a unique mark.

    • Can't Make this stuff up says:

      Volumes could be written about the crimes of RCA and the stupidity of its leaders. But nothing tops when, in the mid 1990’s, RCA brought Peter back to the label, recorded some Bach albums, and sent preview copies to the New York Times. Anthony Tommasini wrote a great review, and then RCA decided not to release the CD’s!

      • M McAlpine says:

        There seem to be quite a few Peter Serkin recordings out there. No doubt RCA will bring them into a tribute box and include the unreleased albums too

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    On May 8, 1991 Peter Serkin was the soloist with the OSM (Montreal Symphony Orchestra). After the concert, he drove back to Vermont to find out that his father, Rudolf, passed away the same night.

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    Anyone remember Tashi from the 70s? Stoltzman and Serkin…the first cool dudes in classical music.

  • Mario Ostrowski says:

    I loved his interpretations and thank him for showing great contemporary music to us. His vingt regards is the best recording out there.
    He was a true artist musician.

  • It’s very sad to hear of Peter Serkin’s passing. He was a unique artist, very adventurous and probing. One of my fondest performance memories is of my playing in the violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for several performances with Serkin of Max Reger’s Piano Concerto. I thought the concerto a very good work beforehand but Serkin truly brought it to life. He played it daringly slowly, revealing layers of detail that pointed out the work’s amazing motivic unity and inexorable development. He made the work reveal itself to me anew.

    Serkin also performed the premiere of Peter Lieberson’s Piano Concerto with the BSO and I was privileged to play in those concerts as well. Serkin had the gift of making the unfamiliar seem familiar.

    RIP Peter Serkin

  • Peter was a dear and wonderful friend. It was a equal pleasure to hear his sublime performances as it was to laugh with him backstage. I admire his vulnerability along with a fearlessness. So sad to lose him. With love, Sandra Binion and Lou Mallozzi

  • HB says:

    Just a very small contribution:

    I know for sure that I will never hear Mozart’s d-minor Fantasia played so heart-stoppingly as did Peter Serkin on RCA. Not in this lifetime. How could he have found the inner soul of the composer, and peered into the stark bottomless terrifying abyss, in the piece which so many treat as a bagatelle? In my music-lectures I always introduce the Fantasia by saying, “For all its brevity, this is one of Mozart’s most profound works.” For this – thanks to Peter Serkin.

    We are in debt to the Serkins – both father and son.

    Dear Peter, נוח בשלום על משכבך. Rest in peace.

  • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

    Two memories of this marvellous pianist:

    The first, in Symphony Hall Boston, of his playing Mozart K.595 with an orchestra (not sure which: Handel & Haydn Society, Marlboro Festival?) under the aged but ever-youthful Alexander Schneider. A complete meeting of minds between soloist and conductor results in a most satisfying performance of this elusive work.

    The second, the opening night of the 1996-97 Carnegie Season. A grand occasion, especially as it’s the first night of a Berlin PO residency during which they will play the four concerti and four symphonies of Brahms in anticipation of the centenary of his death. The only problem: Pollini (the advertised star soloist) is indisposed. Peter Serkin steps into the breach with the 2nd concerto. A terrific reading, which brings out fully why his father’s friend Schoenberg should have called Brahms a ‘progressive’.

    I wish we had heard more of him in London.

  • Herr Doktor says:

    Thank you, Peter, for all the great music and the concerts where I heard you live. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, and some of it was magical. But there was no doubt that there was a real musician up on the stage.

  • Amos says:

    Unfortunately it appears that only the Adagio is on-line but the playing of PS and the Hiroshima SO is imo worth listening to:

  • fflambeau says:

    A great man and a great pianist.

    His father was the legendary pianist, Rudolf Serkin, considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.

    Rudolf Serkin made his debut in Berlin and there is a funny but true story about him that involves Peter’s grandfather, Adolf Busch. Busch was a prominent violinist and head of the ensemble that Rudolf Serkin was the pianist for, The Busch Quartet. The group had just played Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5. . At the end of the concert, Busch told Serkin to play an encore to the enthusiastic audience. Serkin later reported that he asked Busch, “What shall I play?” and Busch “as a joke” told him to play the Goldberg Variations “and I took him seriously. Rudolf Serkin was only 17 years old.

    NOTE: The Goldberg Variations are almost 40 minutes long. Recalled Rudolph Serkin, “When I finished there were only four people left in the auditorium: Adolf Busch, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Einstein and me.” What an audience!

    This story also indicates the kind of super father that young Peter Serkin had and the difficulties that might result from that.

  • Edward says:

    Serkin did the Schoenberg piano concerto with Zukerman and the Pittsburgh Symphony, and he made it sound like Mozart.

  • Peter Chun says:

    Peter Serkin was a musician’s musician. He made anything he played sound like the most important work in the canon, whether it was the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, Beethoven Choral Fantasy, a Copland, or a Mozart.

    It was a privilege of a lifetime, to play Messiaen’s “Des canyons aux étoiles” at Tanglewood in 1994, Serkin working with our student orchestra with the most sacred seriousness, concentration, and professionalism. His serene intensity in everything he played is something I will never be able to forget.

    I’m left with a granite-like impression of everything I’ve heard him play—each piece so perfect and solid, so beautiful and wonderfully admirable, like a sculpture I can “look” at for centuries.

    Once after a Peter Serkin solo recital at Jordan Hall (New England Conservatory), I spotted Rudolf in the green room. No wanting to miss the opportunity, and as a bold 18 year old, I asked the elder Serkin if he was ever against Peter becoming a musician. His answer with a beautiful beneficent smile: “He never asked!”

  • Konstanza Scheurer says:

    “AND FLIGHTS OF ANGELS SING THEE TO THY REST” ~ SHAKESPEARE, May the hearts of the Serkin family be comforted, a great, kind, compassionate, Uber talented musician, finest Artist has left us. Liebe von The Scheurer’s of Koeln, Germany

  • Carl Rubino says:

    Me–I’ll always treasure his recording of Mozart concertos 14-19 with Alexander Schneider and the English Chamber Orchestra.

  • K says:

    I did not know Mr. Serkin, but we’re not that far in age and in the musical circles we moved in. I always thought he was a class act, professionally and personally. RIP.

  • TomL says:

    Flash back over 50 years to Iowa City. Peter Serkin, long hair and all, is playing a recital of modern music in the University’s concert series. First half: he’s accompanied by an open-reel tape recorder and big, loud speakers. He selects tracks on the tape at random, then improvises around what plays. At intermission, surrounded by music majors, local rock musicians, and electronics geeks, he’s excitedly telling them how it works. Then he goes back up on stage and does the second half: Vingt Regards, played with passion, eloquence, and blinding virtuosity that brings the quiet and more or less conservative midwestern audience screaming to its feet at the end. We saw him play Mozart and Copland in Japan, Bach with the New Jersey SO, also at Tanglewood, and so on. Always beautiful and enlightening, often transcendent. Wow, we’ll miss him.

  • This has to be the best Beethoven sonata Op. 111 in C minor performance ever (live or otherwise), of course by Peter Serkin (in Japan):