If the old saying “third time is the charm” is true, then I consider myself fortunate to have attended the last of Russell Sherman’s three-concert series on Sunday afternoon, April 25, at Emmanuel Church. Musing upon the pros and cons of having the same reviewer, in this case myself, for all three concerts, I decided that I am very grateful for the opportunity to have had this conversation with Mr. Sherman.
Ultimately, that’s what it has been — a conversation. Granted, Mr. Sherman may not have intended to have this dialogue with me, but I approached this last concert with a sense of challenge. I had already agreed to disagree with some of his interpretive choices, but I sincerely hoped that I would “get it” this time, because stylistic eccentricities notwithstanding, he is undoubtedly an artist for whom it is worth laying aside one’s own aesthetic boundaries. I also thought about what Gunther Schuller had told me at the previous concert, when I expressed concern about blocking his sightline: “Oh, I don’t need to see him. I listen with my eyes closed.” Bearing those words in mind, I too closed my eyes and limited my attention to three people: Haydn, Schoenberg, and Sherman.
With two of my favorite Haydn sonatas on the program (the C major, Hob. XVI: 50 and E-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 52), I’ll admit to some initial skepticism. But something transformative happened during the Schoenberg Suite für Klavier, Op. 25, the only Schoenberg piece on this particular program. As I listened to the Präludium, I realized that Sherman was bringing out the motives much in the same way he does with Haydn, and somewhere in the middle of the “Musette” I heard the fluidity I associate with Haydn transferred so beautifully to Schoenberg’s music. He approached the Intermezzo with the same deliberation he gives the Haydn adagios, but also managed to bring out the more “toe-tapping” moments of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone writing. I heard glimmers of the composer’s 1901 Brettl-lieder (Cabaret Songs) that had never been quite so apparent in my previous experience with the piece. Sherman gave over the final Gigue to Schoenberg, navigating its treacherous road with calm assuredness and careful attention.
I finally internalized the connectivity between Schoenberg and Haydn in a way for which I was not quite ready when I started this journey with Mr. Sherman. To be sure, there were still moments where his approach to phrasing felt too explanatory and halting (particularly in the opening Andante of the Sonata in D Major, Hob XVI: 42). In the first movement of the Sonata in E minor, Hob. XVI: 34, however, I enjoyed how he took Haydn’s phrases out of Classical rhetoric and gave them more than a touch of modernity. Sherman played the Vivace finale of the same sonata like a music box, but never mechanically, and never letting the listener tire of repeated phrases.
Truthfully, I was most “worried” about the C Major sonata. In the Allegro, Haydn has tucked in a wealth of jocular motivic gestures, and Sherman honored all of them without breaking the momentum. He really demonstrated Haydn’s great fuel efficiency when it comes to motivic mileage. For many pianists, this movement is about energy, but Sherman’s performance highlighted the coexistence of grace and humor that Haydn does so very well. The beauty of the following Adagio movement was all the more striking against the precociousness of the first. Sherman has a keen sense of finale and did not give Haydn’s jokes in the last movement more than the composer asked for, but made the unexpected silences crucial to understanding the piece.
Sherman closed the concert with Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major, and again, it appeared that he took a more conservative approach (for him) to the opening movement, much as he did with the C Major, because Haydn’s writing here is already so seemingly quixotic. He made much of the moments of harmonic transition, exposing Schoenberg in Haydn’s music, much in the same way he had pulled Haydn into Schoenberg’s Suite. I thought there was too much insistence on the repeated note motive in the final movement, but I was taken with the wistfulness conveyed by the prior Adagio. The instrument at Emmanuel has a very bright sound at times, and in that concert room, it can occasionally spar with the acoustic. Sometimes Sherman’s attacks left me wanting more decay to the sound, but he also managed to lull the instrument into a quiet murmur of musical humility in the slow movements.
Ultimately, Russell Sherman’s three concerts have challenged convention in terms of performance practice, historical reception, and aesthetic pigeonholing. In the same way that the cover art on the program interpolates Schoenberg’s 1910 self-portrait and Thomas Hardy’s portrait of Haydn, Sherman’s playing suggests that modernity and tradition are only fleeting and relative concepts when we allow the music to breathe and live anew in performance.