In celebration of his 80th birthday, pianist Russell Sherman offered the first of three concerts in Emmanuel Music’s Spring Chamber Series on Sunday, March 28, at Emmanuel Church. The pairing of Schoenberg and Haydn on the same program has already been proved successful by other concerts in this series, but Sherman truly debunked the stereotypes of Haydn as rosy-cheeked optimist and Schoenberg as cantankerous pessimist in a program that defied and challenged expectation.
Jeremy Eichler, in a pre-concert piece in the Boston Globe (March 21, 2010) stated, “You may not necessarily agree with all [Sherman’s] interpretive choices. But the sincerity and conviction behind each gesture charge the notes themselves.” I only choose to remark upon this insight here as it so perfectly summarizes my feelings about Sherman’s performance. To be sure, his more risky interpretive moments were most prominently displayed in the Haydn selections. While Sherman has a no-nonsense approach to how he begins playing, his treatment of the Haydn Variations in f minor, in particular, was heavily romanticized and bordered on improvisational. He parsed the different ideas offered by the variations into recollections of Beethovenian pathos, graceful Bach-like counterpoint and the occasional jocularity that is unique to Haydn. I found some of his articulations somewhat enigmatic, but all his choices were driven by a clear sense of performer’s license. He wasn’t afraid to own the music, a right that he has undoubtedly earned.
These interpretative decisions carried through to the other Haydn works on the program: Sonata in D Major, No. 19, Sonata in c minor, no. 20 and Sonata in E-flat Major, No. 28. Sherman’s sensitivity to the thematic delicacy in the opening “Moderato” of No. 19 was delightfully contrasted by the playfulness in his hands, which showed no sign of their 80 years. He highlighted the concerto-like qualities of the finale, exploiting the modern instrument to its fullest advantage. The Sonata in c minor lent itself well to Sherman’s interpretation, particularly in the contrast between galloping energy and dramatic melancholy in the first movement. He handled the “Adagio” with great care, as if each phrase was a beautiful and priceless treasure. For the final movement, Sherman allowed himself the most dramatic flourishes, approaching the difficult cross-handed passages with ease and virtuosic confidence. His performance of the E-flat Major sonata was the most straightforward, bringing a balanced sense of fun to the “Menuet,” especially. The final movement, which brought the concert to a close, amplified the sense I had throughout the entire concert—one not of watching a performer, but instead, a relationship. For roughly an hour and a half, the packed hall became Sherman’s living room, and the audience bore witness to the relationship between the man and his instrument. There was an inescapable sense of intimacy, and it was this that made even the more unorthodox interpretive choices work. Haydn’s music, after all, carries an innate sense of surprise and improvisatory character, and Sherman’s playing challenged the tyranny of rigidity in performance practice.
Schoenberg’s music has the slight advantage of being less popularly tied to stylistic strictures. It was a pleasure to hear Sherman highlight the beauty of this repertoire from the nuanced cluster chords to the shimmers of Debussy. In both the Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11 and the Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, op. 19, Sherman never dismissed the opportunities for poignancy in a single note, marketing the expressive capacity of atonality. As with the Haydn pieces, Sherman’s attention to cadences gave these much smaller “stücke” shape and definition. Schoenberg wrote of the “emancipation of dissonance,” and Sherman seemed to rejoice in this liberation, letting the resulting overtones in No. 6 of op. 19 fill the silences. He revealed just how much the composer packed into these “little pieces,” most of which last under a minute.
In the end, I liked the moments where Sherman made me uncomfortable. There was no question of artistic integrity, professionalism, or preparation…only the sense that he was perhaps beating these composers at their own game. Sherman brought forth unexpected moments in the music of Haydn and Schoenberg, offering a compelling challenge to preconceived ideas of performance.