Russell Sherman and his wife Wha Kyung Byun celebrated 38 years of marriage Sunday evening with a two-piano demonstration of devotion to Schubert, to Mahler and to each other. The audience at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall stood up and cheered, and several hundred fans lined up to congratulate the couple backstage in what can only be called a lovefest.
Both players are popular, long-term faculty members at the conservatory. Their appearance was a celebration of their wedding anniversary and a highlight of the fall schedule of free performances by NEC musicians.
The nasty weather and the threat of hurricane Sandy perhaps discouraged some would-be attendees, however, leaving half the seats empty for this rare recital — made even rarer by its pairing of man and wife; they last performed together on the Jordan Hall stage eight years ago for their 30th wedding anniversary. Piano lovers may regret missing the event, for Sherman at 82 probably does not have that many more full-blown recitals left in him, although one never knows, and Byun rarely performs these days.
Also appearing was lovely flutist Sooyun Kim, who provided the lyrical solo based on the “Das Knaben Wunderhorn” song in the Mahler 4th Symphony transcription (a part usually sung by a soprano in the original orchestral version). She was a perfect addition in every respect – from her mint-green gown and golden flute to her lilting, expressive playing.
Sherman, who enjoys a solid reputation across the country for his constantly varying interpretations of the piano canon, looked alarmingly gaunt and frail as he shuffled toward the piano clinging to his wife’s arm. Appearances can be deceptive. They took their places for the four-hand Schubert Divertissement a la Hongroise in G Minor, with Wha Kyung Byun playing the primo part with a luminous elegance. Sherman gallantly accompanied her, staying very much in the secundo background. But as the themes developed, he seemed energized by the music, and by the final chords was in vigorous form with a beaming smile alongside his talented wife.
The Schubert opens with a delightful mix of Viennese melancholia and rousing gypsy and folk tunes, marked andante. Schubert had absorbed some of these melodies while in Zseliz, Austria, tutoring the daughters of Count Esterhazy in the summer of 1824. It was there that he composed this and other two-hand pieces.
The second movement, Andante Con Moto, brings in a sentimental Hungarian feel reminiscent of Liszt’s Hungarian piano works. And the piece rounds off with an allegro in rondo form, making good use of the same material Schubert used in his “Hungarian Melody” D. 817. Here, the primo part contributes a Magyar joy that had the Byun tapping her foot while playing.
Following a short intermission, the pair turned to the Mahler 4th, a work with sentimental meaning for the two pianists. The late Korean-American composer Earl Kim had given them the sheet music of this transcription by Josef Venantius von Woss as a wedding present in 1974. As Sherman wrote in the program notes, “It has been sitting quietly (quietly by unforgotten) all these years. There was an unspoken pledge between us that eventually it would take root, come alive, and become thus a celebration of our marriage.”
Arguably Mahler’s most accessible and popular symphony (although this reviewer would argue – what about the 2nd and the 9th ?), it has also been transcribed for chamber orchestra as well as for two pianos. And it did what transcriptions often do: it brings a much sharper clarity of detail than one can hear under the weight of a full orchestra, especially in Mahler’s lush orchestration.
By now, Sherman was in his element in the dominant part. The opening sleighbells at the top of the keyboard signaled a colorful experience to come. Sherman got so caught up in the music that his sweeping left hand involuntarily danced in the air to the surge of the music. I was reminded of his eccentric but fascinating book “Piano Pieces” in which he wrote, “The hand must be supple. As the Navajo tradition advises, we should move through space with the lightness of a hummingbird.” Aha, so that’s what he was doing!
In the second movement, where Mahler refers to “Freund Hein” (Friend Hal, or death) and asks the orchestra for infernal accents, the transcription brilliantly captured the orchestral emotions. This third movement, the Poco Adagio, labeled Ruhevoll (peaceful) came through as exactly that, a perfect vehicle for Sherman’s obsession with pedaling. In his book he wrote that the pedal “evokes the grave, the magical, the luminous”. Sensitive pedaling, he added, is “the stairway to heaven.”
The final movement brings in echoes of “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” the inspiration for much of this symphony. It calls for a soprano – sometimes performed in our day with a boy soprano – but uniquely accorded this time to the gorgeous and talented Sooyun Kim and what Sherman called “her magic flute.” Among the lines of the song are these: “There is no music on earth that can be compared to ours.” She lived up that lofty aim.
The stomping, whooping audience brought Sherman, Byun and Sooyun Kim back for three curtain calls. A dozen floral bouquets were presented to them. I was again reminded of Sherman’s book. In one’s struggle to master the piano, he wrote, when we achieve something we are “exhausted but alive.”