When Russell Sherman walks out on stage, what ensues is more an Event than a mere piano recital. Now 81, he is more an awe-inspiring figure than ever, and certainly one of the most important and influential teachers this town has seen in the past half century. His concerts sell out quickly, and Sunday night (December 4) at Jordan Hall was packed. An air of excitement was palpable. There was the feeling that this was The Place to Be for serious musicians and music lovers.
The program consisted of two well-known Beethoven sonatas and the much-played (if not overplayed this year) Liszt Sonata in B Minor. Sherman has, of course, recorded all the Beethoven sonatas, and doubtless taught them to myriad students, so I was anxious to hear them live. Critics have noted that when Sherman plays Beethoven, there is a lot of Sherman’s unusual personality in it. It was a most interesting experience, and I wish I could re-hear this part of the concert, because the “Pathétique” and “Waldstein” Sonatas received such unusual performances that I was held spellbound and wrote no notes. However, it was clear that during his 70-year career, he had thought about these sonatas incessantly, and was still trying out new voicings, tempi and musical ideas.
He played the first notes of the Sonata in C Minor, op. 13, “Pathétique” as if he were trying to coax vibrato out of a vibrato-less instrument. There was a sense of adventure as he played; one really didn’t know what to expect from these over-familiar works, and although Sherman’s playing was predictably individualistic and ceaselessly intense, no one seemed to care. I was struck by the physicality of his playing — the many ways his arms left the keyboard, sometimes moving them back into his body, or lifting them very high and very fast, so they soared up to his head. His fingers were marvels to watch, and I often had the sense he was admiring an elaborate toy he had constructed and was playing upon. He sits on a piano chair set very high, so he was often looking down at the keyboard, perched rather high above it. His fingers seemed like orchestral musicians that were following the brain-in-charge. There was a sense of wonder that he transmitted as he played.
The “Pathétique” slow movement began really slowly, and throughout his recital, it was the slow, introspective sections that were the most memorable. This is not to say Sherman can’t play extremely fast with clarity and excitement. His octave and double octave runs throughout the recital could have left those of many a younger player in the dust. Being 81 does not seem to have slowed down the fingers and mind of this brilliant musician one bit. The pieces on this recital were all old close friends of his, and it was an experience watching him re-greet them, especially the “Waldstein” Sonata, which received a very spirited performance.
Liszt’s three-and-a half minute Nuages Gris was given a dark, haunting performance. This segued into the Liszt Sonata in B Minor, which I had heard Sherman play last summer in Rockport. Sunday’s performance was quite different and intrigued me from the very beginning. Could he have rethought this in the past several months? I liked it much more this time; it seemed more coherent and better played. His concentration was absolute. The dreamy parts were beautiful, his octaves again mightily impressive, the feathery sections a delight, chords better weighted, the Sonata in all its many mercurial mood changes a triumph.
Loud cheering broke out, and Sherman got the second Standing O of the evening; (the first was after the Beethoven half). He seemed very pleased and sat down to play an unannounced encore, Transcendental Etude in F Minor. (A recital of his in Jordan Hall in 2008 was devoted to 12 Transcendental Etudes.) Immediately, I understood the extraordinarily high esteem with which Sherman is held in this town. His playing was glorious, and now I know what so many great pianists came from all over the world to study with him. He is a great Liszt pianist.
I had been told about the legendary receiving lines after Sherman’s concerts, but nothing prepared me to see what seemed like a hundred people plus standing very patiently in line to congratulate their old teacher, their friend, their colleague. No one seemed to mind the glacial pace of the line. And after the Liszt pieces, I completely understood why.