Classical music performances often get criticized for their museum-like fussiness, where the polished and perfect rendering of well-worn pieces is the goal. That's not what Peter Serkin is about.

The distinguished pianist's performance Saturday with Symphony Silicon Valley, conducted by George Cleve at the California Theatre, was personal and persuasive. For most of those attending, it probably wasn't the first time hearing Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. But to hear such a fresh and compelling interpretation of this warhorse -- this was unexpected, at least for this listener, and beyond satisfying.

The story behind this gigantic work, completed in 1859, is well-known. It's said to reflect young Brahms's tumultuous emotions, his despair over the suicide attempt and, later, the death of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann, not to mention his love for Schumann's wife, Clara. But over time, these details just get tucked away by listeners, cataloged in the Museum of Classical Music Facts.

At Saturday's performance -- the first of two by Serkin and the orchestra -- the pianist, 65, was the picture of studious focus, as if he were considering this challenging work and its inner meanings for the first time. Cleve set a deliberate tempo, and the orchestra traversed Brahms's dark and harmonically unsettling set-up for the piano's entrance.


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Serkin embraced and even intensified Cleve's deliberate approach, playing the first theme with gravity and arioso lyricism. By the time he arrived at the development section's bravura passagework -- massive chains of octaves and ten-fingered chords -- one sensed a violent, bell-tolling grief. One might have thought that Schumann was Serkin's personal friend, that he had witnessed Schumann's suicide leap into the Rhine.

A beanpole of a man with huge hands -- the pianist shakes them in the air at the ends of phrases, as if discharging electricity -- Serkin rang out those chords. And not always perfectly: He missed some notes, but he didn't play any false ones. He played the music from the inside out: more jagged and biting -- more truthful -- than seamless and polished.

The famous Adagio was even more gripping. Serkin seemed to wrestle with each chord and melodic turn in Brahms's love song to Clara Schumann. I don't think I've ever heard the rising trills at the movement's midpoint played with this much softly mysterious luminosity. The delicate contributions from the winds, surrounding this song of praise, were lovely, as was Serkin's pianissimo cadenza.

And then the Rondo: There was a split-second hitch in Serkin's entrance, but he caught himself, then swept through the remainder of the finale with exuberance and grandeur. Despite its rough-hewn moments, the orchestra was swept up by the spirit of this truly Brahmsian performance.

As an encore, Serkin played a Brahms intermezzo, Op. 119, No. 3. It was short, sweet and memorable: a spring song on a rainy winter night. Serkin made it sound easy. He and Cleve -- friends who have performed together for decades -- took more bows. Then this rare performance was over.

It's easy to be carried away by Serkin's unique qualities as a soloist, even though he recently said -- in an interview in this newspaper -- that too much attention is paid to the role of soloists. His point was that the publicity mill can lead performers to take themselves too seriously. They wind up "manufacturing" interpretations, he said, without "letting the music lead them." Needless to say, Serkin is not a manufacturer.

In the program's second half, Cleve took on yet another massive work with its own back story of ardor and suffering: Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, "Pathétique."

Cleve drew the orchestra out of the opening Adagio, through the nervous, quickened theme that follows and then onto that first golden melody: rich strings and a cameo for principal flutist Maria Tamburrino. Her plush and expressive sound is unmatched by any other flutist in any other Bay Area orchestra. When will she get to perform another concerto with Symphony Silicon Valley?

There were other highlights: the cellos' radiant song in the second movement; principal clarinet Michael Corner's leading of the scherzo's march-like theme; the mournful dying away of the finale. Even so, this was an erratic performance: blatty horns, overpowering brass, thin second violins and much clunky phrasing, undercutting the pathos of this "Pathétique."

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin

Symphony Silicon Valley

Peter Serkin, piano; George Cleve, conductor
When: 2:30 p.m. Dec. 2
Where: California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose
Tickets: $39-$79, 408-286-2600, extension 23, www.symphonysiliconvalley.org