In his first Jordan Hall appearance since breaking a hip on the day of his faculty recital last fall, pianist Russell Sherman gave a lusciously colored performance of miniatures Saturday night that backward counted gauzily from 1909 to 1903, Schoenberg to Debussy to Scriabin, and then swooning back 65 years more, to Chopin.
As sounds and effects it was mostly quite wonderful, often as music too, but just as often was surpassing strange, not much like any public piano playing you’ve ever heard from anyone else.
The damper pedal went down early in Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces opus 11; it was as fond and lovely a rendition as anyone would want, the gently dissonant intervals caressed and cradled to seem like inevitable next steps from very late Liszt and Brahms. (The same thing happened with the opening Schoenberg at the Stephen Hough recital a couple months ago, so mandatory Schoenberg stücke for the start of all piano recitals, I say.) The pieces glowed and scampered and sang and then glowed further, and Sherman’s tinting—he’d rented an especially rich-palette Steinway rather than play on either of the two he’d helped select for the Hall four years ago—and pedaling made even the second piece memorable. That is an achievement, since its rocking lefthand can and does readily become boring even under the fingers of Sherman teacher and Schoenberg student Eduard Steuermann. Other than ultimate power and loudness levels, what a range of touches and shades Sherman exhibited: inflection, musicality, and grace.
The pedal pretty much stayed down for the Debussy Estampes and Scriabin’s Sonata no. 4. That’s surely overstatement; a veteran piano connoisseur pointed out that this was a demonstration of the most delicate micropedalings, and it is true the blurring modulated, was not all the same. Withal, it made for a reduction in crispness and phrase logic, and the Scriabin throughout really wanted point and destinations, small and large. I believe it safe to say that the chord clusters’ effects and calculations were all hazy as intended, in other words that this is not an example of a pianist of failing powers making a mess. Survey courses teach us that painterly impressionism is interested in visual imprint as told by shifting color and light, while musically it is clarity of structure and theme become subordinate to harmonic effects. The Scriabin sonata one usually hears with more pre-Gershwin bounce and form, less absinthe and lavender (and this from a musician who once dismissed early Perahia as “violets and perfume”). But I felt the Debussy to be at the same nailed-it level of persuasive excellence as the Schoenberg.
In Sherman’s hands the Chopin Preludes contained universes and marvels of refinement galore, and again were not like any recording or recital version I know (other than Sherman’s; see here). Still, with so much blurring pedal, microscopically gauged or not, many of the expected clear moments of power, of turning points, got lost. And overheld pedal makes all music sound “modern”: dissonant, polytonal, atonical. (If the late Stanley Kubrick had ever made some spooky movie about Chopin, this would be the performance you’d want as the score—distant, empty-hall reverberations several rooms away, quiet sour washes fading at length down the set’s halls and corridors, Chopin teleported to and deconstructed in 1909.)
Like his playing, Sherman’s highly imaginative Prelude program notes vary from the startling and revelatory to something rather other. Of XIV, E-flat minor, he says
The cycle descends into undifferentiated anarchy. The violence, not from anger but of the unknown, is exemplified by a music unparalleled in its Cyclopean gaze: every note of the piece but the last has the same rhythmic duration, and every note of the piece is in the same clef. The two hands play the same pitches, an octave apart, throughout. All that remains is vibration and terror.
I find that fascinating and almost certainly useful. But there’s also 1960s English-professorspeak of the “Wait, what? Whatever” sort (about III, in G):
Equilibrium will be based on the disparate insights only an inspired madness can provide.
These aphoristic excesses may help convey an idea of this recital experience for anyone who’s not heard Sherman in any of his phases over the decades.
Every chance they could, the votaries rose. The concert had a valedictory feel to it, which one hopes is not the case, or does not have to be. Sherman moves slowly, and with assistance, but the playing is strong and distinct when and where he wants it to be, and he clearly relates with his adoring listeners. The encores were Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca and Debussy’s Bruyères prelude (Book II). The former especially was just spellbinding—perfection. Any and all gauze was now shorn with sharpened shears.