On his best nights Russell Sherman’s performances are more than recitals — they are conjuring acts. From the mere notes on the page Sherman creates sounds that are of his own world. He has never met a chordal inner voice that he did not want to reveal, nor a meter that he did not wish to stretch. His is a style of personal music-making, therefore, that can be ravishing or maddening. Indeed, Sherman’s freedom can seem to be license to conductors and chamber music partners. But when the stars are in the proper alignment, as they were at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Center on Sunday July 17th, Sherman can work his magic, and it does not seem like a parlor trick. The 81-year-old pianist has been making this enchantment happen most often with music of Schumann and Liszt, composers who have what Sherman refers to as “a certain kind of madness.”
In Robert Schumann’s Arabeske, Op. 18 and his Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17, which this listener has heard from Sherman on several occasions, the episodic and fantastic qualities were certainly not stinted. The audience even added to the rapture of Schumann’s fractured psyche by interrupting frequently with applause.
The second half of the program opened with Sherman’s dramatic but poetic take on Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104. For many doubters in the audience, this performance swept away any lingering reservations about Sherman’s prowess or genius. Liszt’s Sonata in b minor was the concluding work on the program. And for this writer it was much more than a routine journey; it was nothing less than a depiction of a life in a short yet timeless thirty-minute span. The standing O brought us a decidedly non-neurotic and Debussy-esque Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este of Liszt.
During a few of the pauses in the program Sherman appeared to be adjusting his hearing aids. As it turns out, they are not hearing aids, but rather ear plugs. Sherman later explained to this writer: “The outer sound of a concert grand can disturb my inner voices and my inner prayer. I don’t want to have the external sounds wash over me. I do a lot of subtle voicing and I want to hear the inner music. The earplugs purify; they permit a truce between the inner and outer voices.”
F. Lee Eiseman is publisher of BMInt.
For an interesting discussion of what makes a performance expressive and to test your skills differentiating human from machine playing have a look at the interactive NY Times article here.