[A re-post in memory of Russell Sherman (3/24/1930–9/30/2023), concert pianist and long-time teacher at New England Conservatory, who died at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts at age 93.]
It’s interesting how Russell Sherman can deliver some of the most eccentric and mannered Beethoven sonata performances around, yet totally behave himself when playing the music of his contemporaries. When you hear how fervently he digs into his friend Gunther Schuller’s Ivesian chord clusters in the Sonata-Fantasia, or listen to his patient, nuanced way with the same work’s murky, Schoenberg-like counterpoint, you just know the composer is being well served. Sherman also makes the best possible case for Ralph Shapey’s terse and charmless Sonata Profundo (actually, the Scherzando is cute, and might be described as a dodecaphonic answer to Gershwin’s “I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise”).
There’s more fluidity and grace to George Perle’s brand of serialism. In his Six Celebratory Inventions he manages to capture certain compositional fingerprints of the composer dedicatees without ever pulling focus from his own style. For instance, Perle really nails Leonard Bernstein’s jazz-inspired asymmetrical figurations, and so does Sherman for his part. The late Robert Helps’ final solo piano composition, Shall We Dance, fuses inward, wistful lyricism with petulant arabesques that keep the right hand busily buzzing. Suffice it to say that Sherman’s gentle rubatos and instinct for color not only capture the piece’s character to perfection, but also evoke images of Helps’ unique pianism.
Because Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces are so delicate and exposed, every note, every phrase, and every dynamic counts. And because Sherman puts his body and soul into the music, I’d feel like a policeman rather than a reviewer in pointing out one or two instances where the dynamics aren’t sufficiently differentiated, or where there’s a diminuendo where a crescendo should be. I’m only bothered when Sherman hums louder than he plays, but that rarely happens. Altogether, a highly distinctive–and distinguished–release.