Music Mountain, Sunday, June 14 – 80th Season Opening Benefit Concert: Peter Serkin and Madalyn and Cicely Parnas Play Bridge, Schubert, and Brahms

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Peter Serkin
Peter Serkin

Peter Serkin, Piano
Madalyn Parnas, Violin
Cicely Parnas, Cello

Frank Bridge, Three Miniatures for Piano Trio, Nos. 4-6
Schubert: Piano Trio in B Flat Major, Opus 99. D. 893 (1827) (5)
Brahms: Piano Trio in B Major, Opus 8 (1890) (9)

Music Mountain’s opening benefit concert gave me my first opportunity to hear the much-publicized Parnas Duo. Violinist Madalyn Parnas is eighteen, and her sister, cellist Cicely Parnas, is sixteen. They are the grand-daughters of Leslie Parnas, who has been a key figure at Marlboro and in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Both individually and as a pair, they have won numerous prizes. Neither have yet completed their studies. In fact Peter Serkin, the pianist in this concert, instructs them in chamber music. This tutelary relationship, in fact, was clearly evident throughout the program. Mr. Serkin, who is a thorough gentleman and the last person to impose his ego wantonly on his fellow musicians, nonetheless dominated the concert through the compelling idiosyncracies of his interpretation of the works on the program, all of which were especially congenial to his intropsective and penetrating musicianship. What’s more, the sisters are not yet fully formed musicians, and, along with some problems with intonation and a thin, dryish tone which occasionally failed to stand up against the piano, their contribution was basically recessive. (The vivid, present acoustics of Gordon Hall left no room for doubt.) Especially in the Schubert and the Brahms, they tended to follow Serkin’s lead, and there was none of the tension of give-and-take among equal partners which makes for great chamber music. Which doesn’t mean that Peter Serkin’s sensitivity and profound insight were any less welcome. It was a joy to hear him in this repertory.

The musicians were most equally matched in the three attractive miniatures by Frank Bridge. Composed in 1910, they immediately conjured up potted palms and the other accoutrements of an English salon. Bridge composed them for one his his violin students and her sister who studied the cello. The Parnas sisters naturally entered into the melancholy lyrical mood of the first miniature and had no trouble projecting themselves in it. Their tone in all of them seemed appropriate, its sobriety restraining the more perfumy qualities of Bridge’s music. Their phrasing was clear and unaffected.

It was surprising, then, to find their tone wanting in the expansive opening bars of Schubert’s Trio in B Flat Major. Neither the violin nor the cello had the fullness and color to assert themselves over the piano’s grand octaves in the bass and the repeated chords in the right hand. This problem persisted through all the louder ensemble passages in both the Schubert and the Brahms. This was not the case in the quieter passages, and Peter Serkin’s vast dynamic range includes an extraordinary pianissimo. The sisters followed him there. In fact, they gave the impression of accompanying the pianist, never once taking the lead in the entrance of a new line or section. This lack of assertiveness grew rather frustrating, creating the feeling that something basic was missing from the performance. On the other hand, Serkin’s understanding of Schubert’s labyrinthine progressions is second to none, and I could only marvel at the subtle dynamics and sensitive Luftpausen he applied in guiding our passage through the development section and the coda of the first movement, as well as all the other wonders of this miracuous piece. The sisters’ occasional lapses of intonation, especially Madalyn the violinist’s, were especially problematic in this work, where harmony is so all-important.

As I took in the gorgeous elegaic operning theme of the Brahms Op. 8, I thought the Parnas’ sober timbre served it well, preventing any feeling of excess or sentimentality. Also, one of their strongest virtues, the ability to spin out a long, arching phrase with satisfying support and shape, found ample scope in this piece. Like the Schubert, it was especially sympathetic material for Peter Serkin, who, adopting broad tempi, did wonders with transitional passages and shifts of tempi. The ghostly quality of his pianissimo and his seamless legato gave the slow movement’s Innigkeit a truly otherworldly quality. Occasionally he brought the music to a meditative stasis, but never let its forward-moving tension vanish entirely. As in the Schubert, Serkin gave us the impression of a very large structure, full of mysterious passageways and stairs, and Brahms’ great early trio is all the better for his particular feeling of reverence. On the other hand, the absence of a meeting of equal wills was becoming more and more frustrating, and it became obvious that a single guiding intelligence, however considerable, was not enough.

I should add that the audience did not seem to share my reservations and responded with tumultuous applause for the entire group.

Madalyn and Cicely Parnas show much promise, but their true musical personalities have not yet emerged, and they still have some technical work to do. It will be especially interesting to hear them play a very different program (Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Arensky) with Christian Steiner at the Tannery Pond Concerts in August (Saturday, Aug 22, 8pm).

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