The total concert experience can often be as much about the atmosphere as the performance. On Sunday evening, a distinct aura inhabited the Jordan Hall of New England Conservatory. It almost reminded me of the old videos of Horowitz’s later recitals. A household name in Boston’s cultural scene, pianist Russell Sherman has graced the concert stage for over a three-quarters of a century and also holds the position of Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at the New England Conservatory. Sunday’s varied program allowed for him make unequivocally clear what he wants out of music at this stage in his life, and how he approaches the expectations of his audience.
To the satisfaction of hundreds of shining eyes, Russell Sherman, 86, approached the bench, and in the process developed a smile reserved for true friends. Sherman began with Arnold Schoenberg, which was fitting as he was a student of Eduard Steuermann (himself a student of Schoenberg). Moreover, this choice guaranteed the most dead-silent and attentive audience right from the start.
“Above all, a piece of music is (perhaps always) an articulated organism [ein gegliederter Organismus] whose organs, limbs, and their definite functions exercise their own external effect as well as that of their mutual relationship”. The sonic universe of Schoenberg is indeed an organism, and this concept is best exemplified in the harmonic “free association” of his early experiments with atonality. The brooding and rhapsodic Drei Klavierstücke Op.11 (1909) come at the pinnacle of this period, and grant the psychological shaping of seemingly free-floating, meaningless information. For Sherman, it was the perfect vehicle to convey his clear ‘need for expression’. In the performing world, there is often talk about ‘singing’ on the instrument. Players are encouraged to imitate or imagine great singers. Sherman’s expressivity here was not ‘singing’, but rather he was speaking and unearthing lines that seemed to only exist in the moment. His reading was bold and tenacious as he highlighted the various iterations of chromatic lines in the first piece. Emphasized off-beats interrupted the murmurs of the second piece, transforming simple lines into multi-layered gestures. His use of the pedal in the third piece was more than liberal, adding drama to an already audacious piece. Sherman’s interpretation remained uncomplicated and straightforward (in the best sense), as he sat almost languorously against the back of his chair, navigating between Schoenberg’s rejection of aesthetic intent and his own need to create mood and color.
Composed soon after the Eroica, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 “Waldstein” is itself a sort of heroic symphony for the piano. With minimal pause, Sherman plunged into the first movement with a youthful and rambunctious celerity, emphasizing the ostinato bass even to the point of covering the right hand’s thematic material. The virtuosic passagework prominent in much of the movement was executed rather curiously. Evenness and clarity were at times passed over for an impressionistic sound full of generous pedaling and a gentle touch. The 28-bar slow movement was, on the other hand, was not at all dreamy or sinuous, as is often the case. It felt hearty and devoid of sentimentality. Sherman pushed and pulled, driving some lines forward and pronouncing others with gravitas and note values extended beyond bar lines—reminiscent of Alfred Cortot. The movement also succeeded as a perfect introduction to the finale, in which Sherman painted a wonderfully bucolic but not lethargic image.
Reading through the titles of his preludes, we see that Debussy’s creativity extended beyond just music. Often humorous, whimsical, and even nonsensical, the preludes continue in the tradition of character pieces carried by Couperin, Rameau, and Schumann. Sherman played the first selection, Feuilles mortes “Dead Leaves”, with the captivating color and fragrance of autumn dusk. The subsequent number, La Puerta del vino “The Wine Gate) was inspired by a post card Debussy had received from Manuel de Falla. As Sherman arrived at the Habanera rhythms, I was immediately reminded of the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, because her approach to the Habanera rhythm is so different. Larrocha treats it with an charmed and reserved grace [here] Sherman approached the same gesture with a more forward, dance-like momentum, at times even shortening the note values. This is again evocative of a Cortot interpretation, or even a Rachmaninoff or a Vladimir de Pachmann. In the third selection, La Terasse des audiences du clair de lune “The Terrace for Moonlit Audiences”, a particularly gorgeous moment arrives towards the end of the piece; Sherman suddenly raised the pedal completely, and along with a subito pianissimo (from forte) and a key change, enrobed the ending of the B section in a rare lambency.
Franz Liszt’s Etudes d’execution Transcendante exist as the product of a dramatist, a philosopher, a believer, and a lover—not just of a genius pianist. Transcendence comes when an artist can take physical skill for granted and allow imagination to reign supreme. Sherman’s approach was less diabolic and more philosophical than some, but most importantly, it felt always new.
Not pausing for long after Debussy, Sherman went right into the Beethovenian “fate” theme that begins the 2nd Etude. No.9 “Ricordanza,” maybe the most gentle and charming of Liszt’s set, establishes delicate cadenzas and a breathtaking theme fit for a lullaby. Sherman again opted for a less sentimental approach. However, his free playing conveyed an incredible humanism and truth, though less through a rhythmic poise of, say, Arthur Rubinstein [here]. Rather, there was a sense of perseverance through struggle, heard in the form of emphasis of repeated themes—this again a quality shared with Cortot [here]. Sherman’s account of the No.10 in F Minor “Appassionata” defied my expectations most of all. He delivered a more literal and somehow at the same time exaggerated interpretation of the markings in places where I had expected a poetic stream light to shine through the cracks of the otherwise constant battle of anguish and agitation. Sherman favored an articulated scherzando feeling over opportunities to highlight lyricism. Most notably, when Liszt suddenly changes to a minor (from previous c major cadence) near the middle, Sherman took a more boisterous approach, not stopping for long to indulge in the rare tender moment in this Herculean masterpiece. Sherman’s beautifully voiced 2nd encore, Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca left a lasting impression, as he displayed a great sensitivity to and love for the harmonic progressions and repeated materials. Overall, his improvisatory Liszt arrived totally in the moment. Without a doubt, he will find different takes for every subsequent performance.
Sherman is an artist without hubris. He seems only to care about the inner conversation, and is purported to still practice for many hours a day. His vision became increasingly salient as the evening went on, and I felt that he was not imagining special emotional states or scenes with particular characters while playing. Rather, he was searching for an internal voice and a sense of unity. Unity allows the audience to consolidate what they are hearing and transcend the physical world. Have you ever left a performance with one thought—“Perfect.”? Sherman was definitely searching for this unity and acoustic information not of a directly physical nature. It was exemplified well in the beginning of the first Debussy selection, Feuilles mortes, where he went significantly over the bar line before delivering a higher resolving note. I heard similar effects in the second movement of the Beethoven. What is behind these violations of rhythm? What I actually heard was a “glissando” (portamento) not unlike those used by famed violinist Fritz Kreisler [here]. Of course, is physically impossible to play a continuous glissando on the piano, but somehow, at that moment, where I was sitting, I heard it. As the late pianist Gyorgy Sebok said “…it is like a rainbow. The rainbow doesn’t exist. It’s only where you are.” Where a Kreisler glissando takes time, a Jascha Heifetz glissando has a sense of immediacy and often starts early, and Sherman employed these as well.
So, for me to attempt to understand Sherman’s conception of timing, it was important to open myself to what he was dreaming between the notes. It was something we heard from the beginning in Schoenberg’s modernist gauntlet through the shapely graduations of pearlescence in the first encore, the Nocturne in F-sharp Minor of Chopin. It is something that our Cartesian minds often fail to notice.
Russell Sherman’s piano playing can be summed up in one word: exploration. This writer felt privileged to partake of his seemingly private and enigmatic dreams.