The venerated pianist Russell Sherman celebrated his 85th birthday on March 25th with an all-Beethoven recital at his long-time home-base Jordan Hall. Endless queues of devotees of all ages began forming well before the start, as has been the tradition over the past many years of his New England Conservatory faculty recitals, to witness this larger-than-life figure famous for unfettered monodrama.
These days, the pianist’s walk across the stage to his Steinway is slow; he uses a cane and is assisted by a young woman whose arm he clutches. He then takes his seat on that familiar chair with its cushion that he has been using for a very long time. There is also the familiar rectangular rug with muted design and color running from the pedals to some distance behind him.
Once seated, it is all fingers, arms, and some shoulder that are the moving parts. We are privy to, quoting Webster’s Third International dictionary, “a dramatic representation of what passes in an individual mind.” Sonata for Piano No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 began as marked, p dolce. This passage, it would turn out over the course of the evening, was one of very few simply offered statements. Didn’t one of the pianist’s teachers suggest that the opening, one of Beethoven’s most touching, be played as an “inspired Clementi etude”? Extraordinary finesse followed with the gently wandering octaves giving way to forceful arpeggios. Sherman, who often is caught lingering or hesitating mid-phrase, surprised us by eschewing his well-known penchant.
Gradually came more and more of Sherman. Voicing the vertical streams of Beethoven, Sherman also began locating linear evidence to support a rare coherence throughout the Sonata. The Prestissimo somehow came under the spell of the opening Vivace, ma non Troppo, reining in the minor and having it become a convincing cousin to the Vivace’s close knit personalities cast in the major key.
For the theme of the six variations, Andante, molto cantabile ed espressivo, Sherman returned to simplicity, nearly shocking for its apparent deviation from Beethoven’s directions. Given the thousands of notes, many of which Sherman customized, though, this uncommon, somewhat stoic take brought a stretch of welcome repose.
With his long, nimble fingers, Sherman made the monstrously difficult Variations (15) and Fugue for Piano in E-flat major, Op. 35 “Eroica” look and sound easy. It was, as was the entire Beethoven program, played flawlessly—and that, in and of itself, was nothing less than astounding!
Humor broke out sometimes mockingly. More often, Sherman began many of the variations veiling them in some mystery. As he neared the end of each, he summoned the phrases into sharper and sharper focus, finally ending with a punchline much like that of a gag. The fugue’s subject, itself, received big jabs so that the iterations could not be missed, while these ongoing hard-hit accents made for real Shermanesque drama. This virtuosity and amusement from the pianist made the “Erocia” variations a strong centerpiece of this Beethoven triptych flanked by two of the composer’s most appreciated and satisfying works.
The contrasting textures and dynamics of the opening movement of the Sonata for Piano No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionato” felt natural. As with the rest of the Beethoven that evening, speedy scalar passages and arpeggios often tumbled, childlike, rather than coming in the more typical cascades. And again, micromanaging the pedals, Sherman created illusions galore, sometimes breathtaking, other times vexing. Exaggeration of primary melodic motives as well as secondary counterparts resurfaced in the Andante con moto.
Eventually, entering the final movement, it became clear that a monodrama had been underway for some time—Russell Sherman’s utter brilliance having me believe I was indeed watching a silent film where there is a stream of vignettes and where dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures and mime—think of the visual “elocution” of Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin.
It was revealed in these pages in 2011 [here] that Sherman wears earplugs in concert so the external sounds of the piano don’t interfere with the sounds he has in his head. One wonders, then, if what the audience hears is anything like what he hears. When Sherman was all set to immerse us in opus 109, some clatter latecomers caused him to reset, and that was when he could be observed adjusting what might very well be earplugs in both his ears.
In a New York second after taking delivery of the final fortissimo eighth-note f minor chord, Buddy’s adorers leapt to their feet and vocalized, soccer-fan style, releasing intense devotion for Boston’s near mythical figure. Countless bouquets showered the maestro. One of the most colorful bunches was presented by a young boy who, to everyone’s delight, skipped off the stage. No encore.