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Undeniable Pianism with Aura of Improvisation— Russell Sherman at NEC


Russell Sherman, New England Conservatory’s Distinguished Artist-in-Residence, celebrated Robert Schumann’s 200th birthday with a recital at Jordan Hall devoted to the composer’s works: Arabesque, op. 18,  Kreisleriana, op. 16, and Fantasy,  op. 17. So said the announcements for this year’s annual recital (free, by the way), given by the inimitable pianist on Tuesday, October 5. Who could resist the temptation to attend? Few: the hall was packed.

Breathing, spaciousness, continuous pulsation and big shapes become subtleties in the art of Russell Sherman. Exquisite microcosms, bubbles of beauty, abound. In Sherman’s fully finessed sphere there is an aura of the improvisatory, oftentimes coming as departures from the real world. In his sphere, the symmetrical restatements of the German Schumann are elasticized, colorized, given atmospheres uncannily resembling a Debussy-like touch in an Impressionistic idealism.

Schumann’s Arabesque met with Sherman’s own arabesques that were cast with delicateness in piano color and articulation over continuously shifting tempos, a nature-scape of sorts. Contrast appeared in the two Minore sections, the first ever so faintly suggestive of Romantic-era emotion and the second hinting at a feeling maybe of longing or reaching. In the concluding section, Zum Schluss (to finish), a distant dreamy left hand altogether sotto voce caught one mood while a pointedly articulated right hand drew toward a conscious state of mind.

Kreisleriana comprises eight fantasies, each with contrasting sections, to form a richly varied Schumann construct. Sherman sprinted in the first fantasy’s outer sections and modified the sprint for the light middle section that has hands alternating and sounding only one note at a time. Marked pp (very soft) in the score, the feel of the triplets seemed stronger and notches above the marking.

A slow, smooth second fantasy emerged from Sherman’s accurate, highly focused playing and incomparable touch. Unfettered lift-offs began each wave-like or arch-shaped motive, the sf or sforzando (forced, accented, often loud) written in the score on the last note of the phrase, were on Sherman’s Steinway unusually gentle. Both the faster Intermezzos, especially the second, took flight in his performance, becoming something akin to the whirr of a hummingbird’s wings. Bountiful bubbles of beauty in the returning slow section led to a uniform outcome.

The third fantasy’s opening section is very fast with a four-note motive that Sherman rendered as unrest, quick darting moves, childlike in their urgency, fairly well removed from any obvious emoting. Though the closing three chords were marked forte (loud), each issued forth quite quietly under Sherman’s out-sized hands. In the final passage of the piece, big power made its first appearance of the evening but without percussive attacks.

In the seventh fantasy the tempo direction Sehr rasch (very quick, lively) for Sherman meant nothing less than what all other pianists might think of as a prestissimo (as fast as possible). For the staccato (detached) notes dominating the eighth and last piece usually heard in performances by other pianists, Sherman brought in pedal—something as important as the piano’s keys to this artist—that changed the whole effect, and then he changed it still further with a dynamic level around a forte in place of the pp found in the score.

Following his own inimitable styling of op. 18, the Fantasy in C, Sherman was called back onstage by true fans with many rounds of applause and quite a few flower bouquets, which he seemed to hold in his arms not so much as trophies but as signs of genuine appreciation, if not a expression of devotion to his piano art. His only encore, The Prophet Bird by Schumann, was pure Sherman, transformed into something out of nature yet undeniably pianistic. Where everyone else heads for the phrase-ending notes—resolved sounds—of the birdcalls, he somehow magically has the beginning notes—unresolved sounds—hanging over like an echo or a resonance, a magical blur, if you will.

For the professionals and avid amateurs among you, I used Edition Peters (Sauer) as my reference.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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