Serkin deserves to be called "incomparable," but not everything on this bargain two-fer does. I was well satisfied by Op. 109 and 110, the strongest parts of a live recital from Vienna in 1984, when Serkin was past eighty. Not only is there the directness and integrity one identifies with Serkin, but he almost effortlessly captures a rightness in his Beethoven, something I also associate with Schnabel, Edwin Fischer, and, very differently, Richter. But Op. 111 finds him flagging physically, and the playing flattens out rather than building to a great emotional crescendo. In the erlier sonatas Serkin compensates for his age, however, through insight and authority. The live recording by Austrian Radio is startlingly lifelike and clear, probably the best piano sound Serkin ever got.
CD 2 is more problematic. His pairing with Rostropovich in 1982 (they recorded in the Kennedy Center, where the cellist was conductor of the Naitonal Sym.) produced a set of Brahms Cello Sonatas that won critical praise, but here in Sonata no. 1 both musicians seem too relaxed, even moony. The passion and drive tht du Pre and Barenboim bring to this wonderfully passionate work are absent. DG's sound exaggerates the size of the cello, making it loom louder -- and much closer -- than the piano.
But we end on a high note with the Mozart Piano Cto. no. 16 K. 451, recorded live in 1988 under Claudio Abbado. DG wasn't always fortunate in having to catch Serkin at such an advanced age (he had just turned 85), and quite a few of the other Mozart concertos he did with Abbado seem sadly diminished. However, Serkin rouses himself to something like his old panache and brio on this occasion, and the conducting is also in high spirits. We get a last listen of the great man with a smiling flourish of D major, only slightly second best to seeing him walking down a country road in Vermont on his way to Marlboro.