Artistic Director Ryan Turner welcomed the renowned pianist Russell Sherman in collaboration with violinist Gabriela Diaz and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer as Emmanuel Music finished its multi-year series encompassing the chamber works of Ludwig van Beethoven. It was cause for elation to see Sherman back on stage for the first time since he broke his hip last fall; additionally, at intermission the audience celebrated his 84th birthday (five days late) with cupcakes and a heartfelt singing of “Happy Birthday.”
Opening Sunday’s program was the Piano and Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, op. 96, “The Cockcrow.” Considering that it was Beethoven’s last work in this genre, much of it is sweetly beguiling as its nickname might suggest. Diaz’s approach was generally an intimate one with mellow tone and discreetly flexible rhythm. Sherman was more exploratory, using the pedal sparingly in the first movement’s exposition, then half-pedaling throughout the development. The resultant faint haze of intermeshing harmonies seemed more appropriate to Romantic and post-Romantic literature. In Sherman’s hands the slow movement’s soulful solo piano introduction reminded one of the theme of the variations of the Piano Sonata in E, Op. 109. When the violin entered, however, Diaz spun out a lovely cantabile while Sherman sought out layers of complexity with pedaling again on the heavy side and sudden accents as though reminding us that even in a lovely song the composer wasn’t averse to giving the listener a surprise. The scherzo was a charming mixture of forest murmurs and bolder disjunct statements; its trio was an elegant series of legato arcs in both instruments, a bit of which Gustav Mahler saw fit to quote much later in his song “St. Anthony Preaches to the Fishes.” The final movement had a charming mixture of hesitation and forging ahead, though occasionally it was Sherman’s left hand that hung back while the right maintained perfect ensemble with Diaz. It has been a topic of controversy whether this practice is authentic in Chopin, but in Beethoven it simply doesn’t convince me. The series of harmonic surprises as the movement seems to taper off were appropriately strange before the Presto outburst at the very end.
The Piano and Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69, is possibly the earliest genuinely great work in the genre, a truly equal relationship wherein the instruments are constantly swapping roles of soloist and accompanist. On this afternoon, it made for an exciting partnership though not without an occasional blip in the ensemble. The lyrical main theme contrasted strikingly with the vehement development. Popper-Keizer and Sherman both had a handsome sound though the turn-on-a-dime dynamics demanded by the exchange of roles wasn’t always successful, with the cello sometimes covered. The continuously “offbeat” scherzo in A Minor was exemplary in its razor-sharp rhythm and carefully observed dynamics, and the second theme (alternating with the first, so not really a trio here), in the major with soothing legato phrases, made an effective contrast. The soft-grained Adagio cantabile introduction of the final movement was like a loving caress. The Allegro vivace had abundant energy as the players exchanged sparkling runs alternating with hammered octaves or chords—merry lightning and thunder.
Following the birthday celebration of intermission (it was noted that Sherman shares his birthday, March 25th, with Arturo Toscanini, Bela Bartok, and Pierre Boulez), Diaz, Popper-Keizer, and Sherman united to perform the well-beloved Piano Trio No. 7 in B flat Major, op. 97, “Archduke.” The nickname refers to Rudolph, younger brother of emperor Leopold II and a friend, patron, and pupil of Beethoven. The opening Allegro moderato was relaxed and fluid but maintained forward motion. At the development’s beginning Sherman’s pedaling increased till the texture verged on murky though, fortunately, this didn’t continue for very long. Although the pianist’s rubato in the scherzo caused a couple attacks that weren’t unanimous, the players made the movement aptly amusing and fun; the trio section was chromatic and wonderfully strange before a vehement section calling to mind “Rage over a Lost Penny.” The Andante is a wide-ranging set of variations: the first, for instance, highlighted the strings’ excellent detached playing while the third looked ahead to the Romantic period, with heightened expression, large dynamic range, and gemütlich cello/piano and violin/piano duets. The finale was light-hearted with a showy piano part (it was the last piece Beethoven performed publicly, in April 1814, due to his by then profound deafness): Sherman was light-fingered and playful. The performers seemed to feel surprise along with the audience when Beethoven took us from the B flat tonic to the truly bizarre key of A Major before getting us, somehow, home again in a breathtaking conclusion.
If Russell Sherman seemed fragile when approaching the piano and is not 100 percent recovered from his accident, this concert served notice that he is certainly well on the way and that he remains a musician who questions “received wisdom.” I hope that this artist, who for so many years has dispensed the healing power of music, is receiving a generous portion himself. Also, I congratulate Emmanuel Music and Ryan Turner on the completion of this massive four-year undertaking and look forward eagerly to the next one: the chamber music of Felix Mendelssohn.