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Russell Sherman: 1930 – 2023


Russell Sherman died last night at 93. He was the piano guru of the Boston area for over 55 years, having arrived during that revolutionary decade which saw the comings of Gunther Schuller, Michael Steinberg, Victor Rosenbaum, Thomas Dunn, and others. Sherman’s playing at the time — he had been a prodigy long before, and had read literary criticism as a Columbia student age 15 — was grounded in strong, fearless, colorful technique and interpretation alike, his rangy imagination informed by great score fealty. Please also read our reprint of a fascinating interview with Russell Sherman from 2016 HERE.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Sherman became labeled a thinking man’s pianist, although never showing the sometime gray fussiness of Alfred Brendel or the sometime colorless drabness of Charles Rosen, his similar contemporaries. (I once arranged for the latter and Sherman to have dinner, after which Rosen opined, typically, “He is an extremely interesting pianist and musician not of the top tier.” To which Michael Steinberg retorted, “Ha, exactly as is Charles. Well, to have been a fly on that wall.”)

Sherman’s Boston and soon his New York recital reviews in the 1960s and 1970s were very strong. Soon, in the early 1970s, he made exciting, powerful, clear-eyed recordings of four Beethoven sonatas (the most thoughtful Op. 7 ever, plus  headlong takes on Tempest, Waldstein, and Appassionata; the NYTimes called Sherman’s concerns structural and developmental, although technically the performances dazzle as well) and of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes, which the Times termed astonishing. The Liszt LP has been posted on YouTube HERE, and yes, it still is something.

I once lightly edited liner notes Sherman had written on the Beethoven sonatas, changing some essential whiches to thats, and upon proofing he gently told me “I understand why you did it, but would you please restore most of them, as I simply like their crunch.” Based on his ear and style, I asked him if he would write something, possibly anything, for the Boston Phoenix, where I worked, and he said, “Maybe on the Sox. Nothing on music.” 

Yet he did write sui generis prose, not only in his ear-opening book, “Piano Pieces,” but also in such recent notes as THESE. A sample on the Chopin Preludes follows: 

XI. A piece of no consequence — only insofar as tender entreaties of the soul have no effect on the real world. It barely exists, but without it there is no existence.

XII. A sinister, lacerating scherzo of defiance and doom. Premeditated: it takes no prisoners.

Lord knows we will miss the man and continue to savor his influences. 

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It was Gunther Schuller who saw the coming of Russell Sherman since it was of course Schuller who brought Sherman to NEC from NYC in the 60s.

    Comment by Bruce Creditor — October 1, 2023 at 9:02 pm

  2. A thoughtful and intelligent, not dumbed-down, capsule of the man and his career.Thank you. It is too bad that he is essentially forgotten outside New England even among the erudite who read this blog. Thank you for the YouTube link.

    Comment by G.M. — October 2, 2023 at 12:44 am

  3. Of course.

    This seems as properly measured now as then:

    Comment by David Moran — October 2, 2023 at 12:49 am

  4. Hello, David.

    Reading this brought waves of sadness and nostalgia. You may remember that I was Manager of Recorded Music at Advent Corp when we recorded and released both the Transcendental Etudes and the Appassionata/Waldstein recordings. I found the latter problematical – certainly iconoclastic – but thought the Liszt was hair-raisingly glorious. That performance will have to remain a memory, because I’m afraid to attempt to play the cassette. I’ve come to grief with other CR70 cassettes shedding oxide like our hound Bernie sheds fur.

    Working with “Buddy” Sherman on the editing of the Beethoven performances – and those breathtaking liner notes – was an experience I’ll always be grateful for. After every conversation with him I felt like my brain had been rewired. But he was also an exceptionally polite, soft-spoken and gracious man. Thank you, David, for reviving my memories of him.

    Comment by Janet Shapiro — October 3, 2023 at 3:47 pm

  5. Janet ! I remember you so well. The soul of competence and judgment. (And you are most welcome.)

    You might want to call around to videotape and audiotape digitizers and ask pointedly about their experience digitizing sheddy cassettes. Or specifically reach out to audio transfer outfits. There is prebaking (literal) treatment which can be done by those who know, I believe. I myself am trying to resurrect some of that Beethoven from original cassettes you chaperoned, with the help of Advent recording engineer Tom Holman — ‘help’ meaning he is going to do the work, very carefully. The LPs do show up online occasionally: I should digitize my copy sometime and send it to you. It is a real pity the Sine Qua Non couple lost the masters.

    Do you know the Beethoven sonata set from later on (GM, Schuller) and the two concerto sets (Neumann / Pro Arts and Bolle / Monadnock)? There are later Transcendental Etudes also. Some wonderful moments in all of these. Yet it was always a mixed bag: recent Chopin feels pulled like taffy, while recitals (; contained many moments that were indeed brain-rewiring, just as you say.

    One funny memory I did not know what to do with was of Wha Kyung asking me to QC the test pressings from SQN. She was giving piano lessons to my first wife and we were acquaintances. We sat intently in my livingroom and soon enough transfer problems manifested themselves audibly. Fixed before production pressing. At the bad audio Wha Kyung’s hardcore sports enthusiast husband waved bah with his hand, asked if there was a TV upstairs, and excused himself to head to an unmade bedroom to watch the Bruins.

    Around the same time, still before Sherman’s rhythmic senses became so crabbed and private, he gave a prerecording / prerecital hauskonzert at my place in Newton. The small colonial was jammed with local luminaries (perhaps including you?), on the staircase and into the diningroom, and I sure wish I could remember the program. The event was briefly recalled in passing here: I still sit at that same Steinway every day, or claim I do.

    Comment by David Moran — October 4, 2023 at 3:20 pm

  6. Didn’t Christopher Lydon and Russell once run for Mayor of Boston together?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 4, 2023 at 3:27 pm

  7. Apparently not officially (city record retrieved from Lydon wkipedia entry):

    Comment by David Moran — October 4, 2023 at 3:45 pm

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