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.