in: Reviews

April 12, 2010

Sherman Returns to Emmanuel

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Pianist Russell Sherman presented his second concert of three in Emmanuel Music’s “Haydn and Schoenberg: Fathers of Invention” Spring chamber music series on Sunday afternoon, April 11 at Emmanuel Church. Sherman’s former student, Katherine Chi, appeared as a guest artist, playing the first two pieces on the program.

Before anyone touched the keys on the piano, Sherman took the opportunity to deliver some pre-concert commentary, outlining his performer’s credo and defending what some have called his “liberties” with tempi. Weaving together ideas pulled from sources as varied as Robert Calasso’s Literature and the Gods, Furtwängler, Stravinsky, and Sherlock Holmes, Sherman offered an almost 20-minute exposition, offering lessons learned from a career that has spanned over 60 years. Through his own Sherlockian observation of the music, Sherman told the audience, he looks to create new experiences in performance and reveal the “narrative” of the notes.

In between his pre-emptive apologia and his first piece stood Katherine Chi’s brilliant and sensitive offering of Haydn’s Sonata in b minor, Hob. XVI: 32 and Schoenberg’s Fünf Klavierstücke, op. 23. Chi was careful to recognize the “moderato” of the first movement Allegro, bringing out the bass lines and creating the opening idea afresh with each restatement. She lent an incredible richness to the trio section of the minuet, with sensitive attention to the inner voices. In the finale, Chi maintained an awareness of the wonderful rhetorical gestures of Haydn, and managed to keep the rhythmic motive both insistent and musical. Her approach to Schoenberg was similar–always showing delicate restraint in the beginning in order to allow the music to blossom. She navigated dissonance as consonance, leaving behind the restrictions of diatonicism and reshaping the listener’s context. By the final Walzer, Chi had closed the gap between the Viennese ballroom and Schoenberg’s notes, brilliantly highlighting the composer’s structural ideas through highly nuanced phrasing.

Perhaps it was Katherine Chi’s mediation, or maybe the effect of Sherman’s words, but I found myself more sympathetic to his interpretive choices than during prior performances. He gave jazz-like fluidity to the opening movement of Haydn’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 46 and contrasted this with an Adagio I found too meditative, but sensitively conceived. I appreciated the way he continued the strength of a melodic line even as the overlapping statements entered.

Sherman opened the second half of the concert with Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI: 48, revealing an improvisational quality in the opening Andante which brought back his earlier words wherein he compared a note to a glass of wine in that it has a “foretaste, a taste, and an aftertaste.” Sherman’s lack of harmonic pressure brought out the finish of Haydn’s notes, leading toward an achingly beautiful final cadence. In the Rondo, however, Sherman’s phrasing seemed too rushed in an attempt to capture Haydn’s gregarious energy, dismissing some of the more melodic qualities of the theme.

From the piano, Sherman let the audience know that the following Schoenberg Klavierstücke, op. 33 and op. 33b were the “closest thing to a Brahms Intermezzo” recalling his earlier anecdote about his teacher who told him that playing the Brahms intermezzi would “ teach one how to be in love.” Indeed, Sherman’s playing had some positively Romantic moments of introspection, but never lost a sense of horizontal phrasing in order to bring out Schoenberg’s melodies.

Sherman closed the concert with Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 49, most closely aligning this particular work with his statement of purpose. His Allegro was delightful, packed with operetta-like energy as his hands engaged in witty repartee. As Chi did with the B minor sonata, Sherman ensured that every statement of the main theme was fresh and vital. While he may not have convinced me with the A-flat Major Adagio, the slow movement here was wondrous. Sherman perfectly captured the hymn-like qualities of the movement, treating it more as an introspective German cavatina. Even with the ornamented return to the opening material, Sherman kept his hands tightly on the reins, in a perfect balance of passion and cantabile phrasing. The closing minuet-finale was tuneful and joyous, bringing forth the innate laughter in Haydn’s music.

Sherman said he was aiming for “variety in balance with unity.” He has successfully unified Haydn and Schoenberg as masters of their craft across three centuries. Schoenberg’s reputation for iconoclasm often obscures his careful inheritance of older compositional traditions and Sherman successfully pulled the Mozart out of Schoenberg’s writing. As for Haydn, Sherman celebrates the composer’s artistic risks by taking some of his own, always savoring the opportunity with a tremendous warmth and love for the music.

Rebecca Marchand, musicologist and mezzo-soprano, holds a Ph.D in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She serves on the faculty of the Longy School of Music, and teaches also at Boston Conservatory and Providence College.

2 Comments

  1. From a BBC Music Magazine review of GM 2050 CD, the first installment of a complete Beethoven cycle. (In its original print form the review was certainly signed, but the name is missing from the website version.)

    ” … Sherman, who … has written his own programme notes, sees this comic masterpiece [Op. 31/1] as a ‘robotic joust and carnival, … the mirth of jesters and jugglers, the collision of the earthly and the abstract.’

    ” … ‘Meanwhile,’ Sherman continues, ‘back on the analytical front [sic!], the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the music entwine in a variety of Kama Sutra positions.’ Fortunately, Sherman’s playing is somewhat less convoluted than his prose.

    ” … The piano is distant and harsh, militating against the promise of the producer (no lesser a personage than Gunther Schuller) that listening to these performances will be some sort of epiphany.

    ” … His performances are nothing if not idiosyncratic — occasionally thought-provoking, but more often imfuriating. Particularly irritating is Sherman’s spasmodic jerkiness: the middle section of the Adagio in Op. 31/1 lurches forward so much as to sound like something out of another piece altogether, while the rubato in the Rondo theme of the same sonata’s finale is mannered to the point of absurdity.

    ” … The same goes for the Rondo of the little E major Sonata Op. 14/1, as well as the Adagio sections from the opening movement of the Sonata in the same key, Op. 109. For all their laudable intentions, these performances are unlikely to make much of an impact in what is a crowded field.”

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 13, 2010 at 5:12 pm

  2. More …

    1.) http://www.gramophone.net/Issue/Page/December%202008/103/999466/Debussy

    2.) http://www.gramophone.net/Issue/Page/October%201990/122/775949/LISZT.+12+Transcendental+Studies%2C+SI39.+Russell+Sherman+%28pf%29.+Albany+%C2%AE+%28p+TROY0282+%2872+minutes%3A+DDD%29.

    3.) http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/17/arts/music-a-commanding-virtuoso-avoids-the-celebrity-circuit.html?pagewanted=all

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 13, 2010 at 6:10 pm

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