Not a seat at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall could be found. Word was out that Boston’s own Russell Sherman would be at the piano performing preludes of Debussy and Chopin on September 24. Who would want to miss such a concert?
First on the program were Debussy’s Préludes from Book II (1912-13), which went places to which I had never fully traveled — gotten glimpses of, to be sure, but only the most fleeting glimpses. From the moment Sherman appeared on stage, his every step toward the piano intended to direct us toward his own inimitable space, prepare us for what was about to come. He urged us on, into the world he has inhabited for some good amount of time, a world where the piano is irrefutably the center of his galaxy.
Like the sun during the course of a day, his piano lit up these century-old preludes, shedding light in remote corners and casting hues of all sorts on their ever-changing landscapes. Sometime further along into the preludes, I began to wonder about this man, who, I am told, is relatively quiet, much of the time keeps out of the public eye, and is always near a piano. What a singular opportunity it was to hear him live, and to be privy to what this remarkable pianist has unearthed after years of covert work. In his hands, Debussy’s own unconventional music — compositions famous for displays of Impressionism and Modernism, pianism and naturalism — was refreshingly, unexpectedly articulated.
Debussy’s opulent harmony, too, has received beaucoup d’attention. But Sherman obviously continued on his own personal, if not idiosyncratic journey, envisioning the Frenchman’s art as harmonics — not just harmony, let me stress — but harmonics, that natural phenomenon associated with overtones or the harmonic series (a Greek discovery dating some 2,000 years back).
In Broulliards (Fog), chords on the white keys counter arpeggios on the black keys. Sherman melded the two as a single type of vibration as if out of nature. For Feuilles mortes (Dead leaves), he touched up harmonies by not articulating each note of the chord equally thereby creating colors — light — of all kinds to issue forth in the most astonishingly delicate if not dizzying tonal shades.
With Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) came his extraordinary sense of pedaling intended to create an exquisitely tinged swirling effect followed by trills perfectly shimmering in a subdued but intense atmosphere. Harmonics played out in yet a different way in both his General Lavine-eccentric and Hommage à S Pickwick Esp P.P.M.P.C. New to me was Sherman’s playing down the obvious — the tuneful fun — and emphasizing, instead, the underpinning harmonies, all of this with mind-bending results. As in the other preludes, he had these pieces talking, gesturing, dancing and always vibrating.
Elevated sonorities in the intimate Canope hid their usually apparent structures. In the more extroverted middle section, a kind of flutter pedaling technique evaporated a harmony in the blink of an eye. It seems that Sherman thinks about the pedals the way he does his fingers: both are continually involved in the action.
Debussy’s penultimate prelude is composed solely of a simple sound, the interval of a third. In this inauguration of the new Steinway D, Sherman showed his deftness at balancing all of the piano’s registers (high, middle, and low), accelerating and decelerating at will, crescendoing and decrescendoing in high-performance enigmatic precision. And in the final prelude of this set, Feux d’Artifice (Fireworks), harmonics rang out. Sherman tamed and shaped this wild and wooly work into a thing of breathtaking beauty like the skies over Boston’s Esplanade on the 4th of July.
Often described as “gems,” Chopin’s Préludes Op. 28 (1836-1839) were another matter, overshadowed with much the same techniques Sherman had used so successfully in the Debussy. Pedal fatigue set in. I might be alone in this, but I could find little poetry in this music that was composed by “The Poet of the Piano.” I live for the original and the daring. However, for me, Sherman’s techniques came between me and the music. Too much and too often in the forefront, they became the focus.