Russell Sherman, pianist, at Williams and on DVD: Liszt, Transcendental Etudes

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Russell Sherman with Wha Kyung Byun, Joanna Gabler, and Two Generations of Students: Minsoo Sohn and Fred Chaffee, photo Michael Miller
Russell Sherman with Wha Kyung Byun, Joanna Gabler, and Two Generations of Students: Minsoo Sohn and Fred Chaffee, photo Michael Miller

Chapin Hall, Williams College
November 19, 2008

Liszt, Transcendental Etudes and Master Class

Russell Sherman: Franz Liszt – Transcendental Studies, Live at the Angel Oresanz Cultural Center, Avie Records DVD AV 2152

Williams has had an exceptionally strong recital program this fall, from its Messaïen tributes, medieval and renaissance music,  and Ani Kavafian and Mihae Lee early on to the splendid Brahms violin sonatas of Williams’ own Joanna Kurkowicz and Doris Stevenson (soon to be reviewed) and, in November, the great Russell Sherman. I’m used to driving to Peterborough or Boston to hear him play, and it would be a great thing to be able to rejoice in the convenience of hearing him at home, if it weren’t for the unfortunate combination of Chapin Hall’s acoustics and the Williams Bösendorfer. I’ve never heard any musicians, especially pianists, realize their potential under these circumstances. However, one undeniable advantage was the opportunity to talk with Mr. Sherman during his visit, which included a master class the following day.

Thanks to Mr. Sherman’s extra effort, however, the recital was splendid success. He knew about the problems with the hall and the instrument (through this source, I’m pleased to say), and he came up the day before, accompanied by his wife, the pianist and teacher, Wha Kyung Byun, his student Minsoo Sohn, and the piano technician, John von Rohr, who is legendary for having satisfied the notoriously perfectionistic Alfred Brendel on his visits to Boston. Sherman’s original solution was to play the Steinway which normally lives in the Brooks Rogers Recital Hall, but this instrument had its own problems, and it was not practical to move it into Chapin. (However, Mr. van Rohr worked on it, and it is greatly improved, as I heard at the master class.) There was no choice but to work with the Bösendorfer. After von Rohr finished with it, Sherman set to work, practicing for hours on Tuesday and on the day of the concert to get used to the instrument. His starting point was the fact that all pianos have their own personalities, especially Bösendorfers, and it is self-defeating to try to impose one’s will on one of these monsters. Sherman got to know the instrument and adapted his playing and his expectations to suit it. While the result was by no means without shortcomings, his achievement was astounding. The upper and lower octaves sounded spectacular, and the middle range, which tends to be both muddy and lacking in resonance, was much clearer, but still heavy and somewhat dead. Although not as satisfactory as the Steinways Mr. Sherman usually plays around Boston, the Bösendorfer was almost equal to its task. It improved through the course of the recital, and the brilliant clangorous high passages in the later etudes were thrilling to hear. In this context, it was interesting to realize that pianists in general are not enamored of the Bösendorfer. In fact, whenever I have heard them at their best, it has almost always been in Mozart or some other relatively light-textured composer of the classical period. If I wanted to be wicked, I could say that Bösendorfers excel in music that should be played on a fortepiano anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I have heard wonderful sounds from Bösendorfers, just not this one.

Russell Sherman has given a good deal of attention to Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. I heard him play them magnificently at the Monadnock Festival a few years ago. He also played them in 2004 at the Angel Orensanz Auditorium in New York, and the concert was recorded for video (Highly recommended!!!), and he returns there at the end of this week to play them again. Even if you can be there on Friday, you will want to join the line—which is sure to be a long one—to buy the DVD, which includes notes by Mr. Sherman and the late Craig Smith, as well as excerpts from a master class and an interview conducted by Christopher Lydon. His notes, by the way are astonishing poems in prose, which convey the scope of the imaginative concept behind his playing. (His earlier Vanguard recording includes more matter-of-fact but equally insightful observations. These are also worth reading.)

In the Transcendental Etudes Russell Sherman makes a point of balancing the work’s grandiosity, its technical issues, and its poetry. I have heard him transport his audience entirely into a poetic world of colors, moods, and atmosphere, as if Liszt had somehow sewn up into them the seeds of Parsifal and Pélléas. With the Bösendorfer there was necessarily less tone-painting and more emphasis on grandeur and power. Passagework was very clearly articulated and often exceptionally beautiful in sound, but it tended to remain in the here and now of Chapin Hall. For Russell Sherman, although he approaches the keyboard as a pianist, not a would-be conductor, a piano has for him an entire orchestra under its lid, so great is his command of color, both in his playing and in his imagination. In the Bösendorfer some of these instrumentalists may have gone out on break. It is in fact highly impressive that his musicianship is so far-reaching and many-sided, that he can follow the lead of this ornery provincial Bösendorfer and work with the aspects of Liszt’s many-facetted pieces which are most viable within the opportunities it offers.

It is clear, both from his playing and his writings, that Mr Sherman sees the Transcendental Etudes as a laboratory of piano technique, a vehicle of personal display, and,  at their best, extremely sophisticated, brilliant compositions, and poetry of a very high order. They are as typical, outstanding, and forward-looking a monument of nineteenth century art as Tristan, although by no means as perfect. In his notes, Sherman draws connections with both Beethoven and Schoenberg. The genesis of the work is remarkable, reminding us of Pierre Boulez’ constant reworking of compositions begun in his youth. In 1826, when he was fifteen, Liszt wrote a set of twelve etudes, which are the core of the work under discussion, although it is vastly enriched. This was published in 1827. In 1838, Liszt published a much more elaborate—and fiendishly difficult—version, which Schumann reviewed, describing them as “studies in storm and dread … fit for ten or twelve players in the world.” Finally, in 1851, Liszt simplified the works in texture and in technical difficulty, adapting them to the evolving piano, as well as his own evolving psyche. Little or none of the poetry of the final version is discernible in the first. In fact the poetic titles of the etudes only appear in this version. (On the other hand, the continuity of the sets is shown by the fact that Liszt maintained the key relationships of the original, a descending circle of 5ths.) The Transcendental Etudes of 1851 are magnificent examples of nineteenth century European poetry, as much as the Légende des Siècles, only the words are absent. Its expressive medium is harmony, timbre, and gesture, which has a sort of narrative value as musical rhetoric. It is an amazing experience to live in this poetic world without the specifics of words and their material referents. The etudes even tell stories, and not only in the obvious way of “Mazeppa” (No. 4). A passage through them, especially with Russell Sherman, is a spiritual journey, perhaps even a self-portrait, as if the work were an anticipation of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which also revolve around the composer’s personality, but in a more complex way, befitting the nascent twentieth century. Russell Sherman is fully conscious of this narrative-evocative character of the etudes. I’ve mentioned in the context of his recent Schumann performances that his performance gave one the feeling of living inside the music, and in the greatest of them—say, Paysage, Ricordanza, Harmonies du Soir, and Chasse Neige—that is a powerful experience indeed.

One Lisztian trait which is egregiously lacking in Russell Sherman is vanity. In spite of his modest, studious attitude at the keyboard, he was sonically fully in command of the grand gestures, while he focused intently on the etudes’ structure, harmony, and narrative path. His playing was lovingly detailed and as clear in texture as the Bösendorfer would allow, and he brought more color out of the instrument than I have ever heard, giving us some sense of the amazing palette of color and suggestion in his mind. His understanding of the Transcendental Etudes is so profound, that I cannot help thinking that he himself has been shaped by these works over years of study. He has truly made them his own, and they him.

Modesty or no modesty, Mr. Sherman was excited after his achievement and looking forward to his master class the following day. In fact he declared that he intended to wear his Obama button to the class. (See photo above. This is the first election in my memory for which people wore buttons and organized rallies after the election.) The fact is that Mr. Sherman is justly proud of having participated in a benefit concert which raised $50,000 for the president-elect.

This class was as remarkable as the recital, an object lesson in the piano as a humanism. In general the master classes given at Williams by visiting musicians—all open free to the public—are among the most rewarding musical experiences the college offers. It is hardly appropriate for a critic to review a master class, but I will report on Russell Sherman’s remarks, and also observe that Williams has some fine talent among its piano students. They and their distinguished teachers deserve better facilities. When the current economic crisis is over, I hope the college will see about providing a decent concert hall and some better pianos. As I mentioned, John van Rohr had brought the Brooks Rogers Steinway into an attractive tonal equilibrium, but its sound in the hall was as loud as ever. Mr. Sherman, somewhat taken aback by the explosion of sound, said that it “wanted to pop out like toast from a toaster.”

Kenneth Taubenslag ’09 had prepared Mozart’s A minor Rondo, K. 511, Ed Wichiencharoen ’09 the second and third movements of Haydn’s C Minor Sonata, and Laone Thekiso ’12 Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3 in C-Sharp Minor, opus 39. The class began with the premise that every piece has a secret. The Mozart rondo, perhaps is a secret in itself. It prompted Mr. Sherman to quote his teacher, who said that the piece was so intimate and private that it should not be performed in public. Following Josef Hoffmann’s example he asked the student to explain the meaning of Mozart’s music. He also raised the issue of a pianists “touch,” a word now in disfavor. Hearing that, I vowed to restore it to my critical vocabulary. I may  not have made good on that yet, but I invite sceptics to watch and listen to the Mr. Sherman’s DVD. Mozart’s chromatic rise was compared to Sisyphus. Noting the sense of deference and weariness in the final cadence, he observed that the most important thing in music is the diminuendo, attributing the remark somewhat tentatively to András Schiff.

In the Haydn the issue of rubato, another discredited term,  came up, along with a reference to Robert Philip’s Performing Music in the Age of Recording. I should add here as well that Mr. Sherman eventually began to conduct in all three pieces. In the slow movement of the Haydn he brought out a clarinet, and in the last movement cellos and wind band. In this last movement, which for me always evokes memories of Alfred Brendel’s Schoenbergian interpretation, Sherman finds a certain “malice aforethought” behind its oddly truncated, elliptical, and asymmetrical phrase structure. In addition to an orchestra he also finds a story in it, an entropic tale in which the protagonist is wiped out, annihilated, with only a neutral shell remaining. Between his wife and his mistress, Haydn’s lot was not a happy one. The music also had its insinuating moments, and there was some discussion about what the word “insinuate” means. To fulfill a promise, I quote the entire OED entry: click here.

In discussing the Chopin scherzo Mr. Sherman had occasion to refer to Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin, Pianist and Teacher: as Seen by his Pupils, and the story that his playing was inaudible beyond the seventh row. In one passage, he astonished us all by illustrating one section as “Brutus about to kill Caesar.”

After Chopin was duly served, Russell Sherman gave his audience a wonderful treat. He spoke about general issues of music and culture. One  especially important theme he addressed was the flexibility of tempo and dynamics cultivated by the direct heirs of the nineteenth century, the soloists and conductors of the early twentieth century. He spoke of cycles of style. As concert-goers and record collectors know all too well, this golden age of performance was followed by a period of so-called objectivity. Tempo markings were strictly observed, portamento and “dislocation” (rubato for the rest of us) were avoided. Have we recovered from it yet? This of course corresponded to a certain ideology, which itself reflected the violence and destruction the last century, a time when propaganda dominated public discourse and the arts. Without wishing to misattribute my own opinion to Mr. Sherman, I’ll illustrate his point with Arturo Toscanini, the leader of the “objectivists,” who became the object of somewhat misplaced hero-worship during the ascendancy of Fascism in Europe and the Second World War. His occasionally brutal, inflexible tempi became the musical style of democracy, just as Furtwängler’s expressiveness became associated with Fascism, both to the detriment of music. Toscanini’s example inhibited musical expression, just as Hemingway’s curtailed (Dare I evoke one of his heroes and say “castrated?”) English vocabulary.

So much for the century which, as a salutary warning, gave us George Orwell and his “Politics of Language.” The new century seems hardly better, but people like Russell Sherman can make up for a lot, even eight years of Bush, Cheney, and their disastrous agenda.

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