The American pianist, who has died at the age of 72, had an exceptional musical pedigree: his father was the pianist Rudolf Serkin and his maternal grandfather the violinist and conductor Adolf Busch. Serkin’s musical sympathies were enormously broad, and though he played a huge amount of contemporary music he never liked to be referred to as a new music ‘champion’, he merely felt playing the music of his time part of his role as a musician.
He entered Philadelphia's Curtis Institute in 1958, aged 11, and studied with Mieczysław Horszowski, Lee Luvisi and his own father. He made his debut the following year at the Malboro Music Festival which then led to major engagements with top-flight orchestras and conductors like the Cleveland and George Szell and the Philadelphia and Eugene Ormandy.
In 1968, aged 21, he took a break from music, moving with his wife and young child to Mexico. It was apparently hearing the music of JS Bach on a neighbour’s radio that convinced him of his need to play again. He returned and continued a major career which also included, in 1973, forming the chamber group Tashi (with Ida Kavafian, violin, Fred Sherry, cello, and Richard Stoltzman, clarinet), initially assembled to play Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (which they performed over 100 times and recorded in 1975). Together they commissioned numerous works and recorded for RCA. (The group reformed in 2008 for a tour to mark Messiaen’s centenary.)
Serkin’s repertoire ranged from Bach’s Goldberg Variations (which he recorded five times, the first at 18 and the last at 70) to numerous modern works written especially for him by major composers including Elliott Carter, Hans Werner Henze, Luciano Berio, Peter Lieberson, Oliver Knussen, Alexander Goehr, Tōru Takemitsu and Charles Wuorinen.
He recorded extensively for RCA, and among his finest releases were Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (‘Messiaen's harmonic colours take on a luminous quality under his fingers, the rhythmic ostinati are imperiously compelling; the dynamic range, immense, yet always within musical bounds; the total effect, overwhelming’ wrote Felix Aprahamian in Gramophone’s December 1976 issue), a Takemitsu programme, an album of six Mozart piano concertos with the ECO and Alexander Schneider, the Brahms violin sonatas with Pamela Frank (for Decca) and an album of music for two pianists with András Schiff (for ECM New Series). Serkin was unusual among top-flight pianists in playing on both modern pianos and period fortepianos, using a Graf instrument to record the last six Beethoven piano sonatas (for Musical Concepts).
Serkin taught at Curtis, Juilliard, Yale and, latterly, at Bard College in Upstate New York near where he lived.