Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Russell Sherman Plays Schumann and Liszt at Rockport Chamber Music Festival

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Russell Sherman, photo: Michael Lutch

Rockport Chamber Music Festival
Sunday, July 17
Russell Sherman, piano

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival concluded its official season with a piano recital by Russell Sherman, consisting of music by Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. Of course, things go on year round now in the Festival’s wonderful new hall, the Shalin Liu Performance Center—it is intimate, beautiful, sounds great, looks out onto the harbor and the open sea—not enough admiring can be said about it. So there will continue to be good reasons for music lovers to visit Rockport.

Russell Sherman is one  Boston’s great treasures, and most of the music audience hereabout have heard him play over the years in a wide range of repertoire. He is a great musician, a great teacher, and generally speaking, a great friend to music and the enterprise of music. Everyone should read his thoughtful, highly readable book, Piano Pieces—it brings one closer to music. Sherman has now passed his eightieth year. He is a spare man who looks a bit pale and frail.  But he walks and moves well, and is still accurate and fleet of finger and well able to fashion color and control voicing and rise to sonorous climaxes in the music he plays. No diminishment apparent in energy and physical abilities as he played through Sunday’s challenging program. And emotional and intellectual interest seemed greater than ever—the interest he took in the music and the focus he brought to it, and the interest he gave the listener.

The program opened with Schumann’s Arabeske, Opus 19, a rondo with a very Schumannesque lyrical dotted-rhythm theme with turbulent accompaniment; exploratory episodes in the minor; and a beautiful leave-taking, fade-away coda. Sherman found—that is, half-created—all the surprise, inventiveness, and emotional complexity of this piece. It served as a good prelude to the big Fantasy in C-Major, another piece with, on a much grander scale, repeated—and here evolving—material, unanticipated wanderings into new terrain, and, finally, a protracted heart-breaking taking of leave. From what? Well, from the gorgeous, complex piece itself, of course, as if the composer must, reluctantly, leave it and give it up and go back to life. But it seems more than that. Schumann was smitten with his wife-to-be, Clara Wieck, at the time of composition; perhaps identified her with the main theme, soaring and glorious; and certainly quoted and transformed along the way a passage from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), which music lovers of Schumann’s time would have recognized. Perhaps the piece reflects longing for the object of love and anxiety about how things might proceed—Clara’s father opposed the connection, and even unopposed love carries its worries. However, one need not think about romantic love, Clara, or the Beethoven song. There is something more universal going on: the envisioning of beauty and lyrical transport itself, something abstract and general and yet immediate, and its perpetual interruption by maddening forces emerging from the subconscious or the bowels of the earth or the ways of the world, what you will, leading to a final exhaustion and resignation—yet one that still spins lines of beauty and perhaps holds hope. At any rate, Sherman’s performance made one feel the piece this way. He spun out clear and beautiful lyric lines, but brought to the fore all the interruptions, counter-rhythms, and general turbulence and unsettledness that are really a part of this piece, and are sometimes suppressed or smoothed out. Liberal but careful use of the sustaining pedal created not a blur of sound, but a sense of many things occurring at once, parts of the mind and feelings struggling with each other. All became calm with the final much repeated figure descending, going back up, descending, going back up, as if wanting, and not being able, to get back the grand descending figure of the piece’s opening.

After intermission, Sherman began with Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet 104, one of the composer’s most attractive pieces, where a long line is embellished, colored, perfumed—altogether genuinely made richer—by inventive piano sonorities and flourishes. Love, if you like, as besotted as Schumann’s, but not so worried and conflicted—simply an exotic, varied pleasure. Sherman shaped the piece beautifully—it was really his most perfect performance of the evening. Then came the big Sonata in B-Minor, Liszt’s most widely admired piano piece, where keyboard heroics are fused with a concentrated transformation of a few related themes, as in Beethoven, roughly speaking. Wild romanticism centered in a classical gravitas. Moreover, Liszt gives a sense of a great contest of good and evil, “demonic” material alternating and fighting with exalted chorale-like passages. Some pianists go for clarity in all this, spelling out every line and note, distinguishing light from dark, making the battle lines and progress of the battle unmistakable. Sherman’s approach, as with the Schumann Fantasy, was to bring crosscurrents to the fore, creating a “clear blur,” if one may so phrase it, of sounds and moods. The piece was all turbulence, an ongoing meditation where the meditator/composer/performer seemed to try to satisfy himself with the thousands of notes—and never could. Sherman rendered the demonic theme with unusual force, even harshness—the five repeated eighth-notes, then two quick sixteenth-notes and two more eighths making a turn. This kept coming back, harsh and interruptive right up to the end, signaling the impossibility of calm or resolution for the tormented mind. I thought that Sherman seemed to tire a bit towards the end of the Sonata, but after one curtain call he gave us a perfectly executed rendition of Liszt’s late Jeux d’eaux a la Villa D’Este.  This music is very late-nineteenth-century-French-sounding, and even anticipates Debussy and Ravel with some passages of whole-tone harmony. It is a fountain piece, perfect picture painting, and made the Sonata seem in retrospect all the more mental, personal, and agonistic.

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