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Music review

Pianist brings spontaneity to survey of Bach suites

Russell Sherman's playing renewed the surprise of Bach's music. Russell Sherman's playing renewed the surprise of Bach's music. (File 2000)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 11, 2008

Pianist Russell Sherman concluded a three-concert tour of Johann Sebastian Bach's English Suites on Saturday, programs that also surveyed Bach's sonatas for viola da gamba and Bach arrangements by the late-Romantic pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni. England is ironically not among the countries that influenced the English Suites, composed at the court of Weimar, where Bach, already familiar with German counterpoint and French keyboard practices, first encountered the music of Antonio Vivaldi, absorbing the new Italian clarity into his style.

That influence was manifest in the Sonata No. 1 for viola da gamba and keyboard, played with elegant classicism by cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and guest pianist HaeSun Paik. In slow movements especially, the compact themes and clockwork harmonic progression are borrowed from Vivaldi, but the muted chromatic anguish is pure Bach; Popper-Keizer's silken tone and subtle attention to each note infused the inexorable tread of the melody with restrained emotion. In the cavernous acoustic of Emmanuel Church, busier sections didn't always balance - Paik's ringing piano predominated - but had a sparkling precision.

Paik (like other guest pianists in the series, a one-time student of Sherman's) contributed two of Busoni's resonant, full-handed chorale prelude transcriptions. "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" became a bit of pianistic legerdemain, the chorale tune pealing its way through veiled decoration as if via a third arm. "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein" was a breakneck roller-coaster: tune, thumping bass, and dizzying adornment jostling for position with virtuosic flair.

Sherman's performance of the suites - here, the first and the sixth - was highly idiosyncratic. Tempos were in near-continuous flux, in fast and slow movements alike; often the music seemed completely detached from the underlying rhythmic grid. Teeming passagework was a bright, furious rustle, from which motives and inner lines shot with hammered force. Particularly in the first suite, dense with Francophone ornamentation, it was like an elaborate brocade, studded with sharp accents.

It wasn't always convincing: the fleet triple-time gigues that close the suites, for example, missed their relentless quick-step momentum. But Sherman renewed the music's original surprise, his spontaneous current keeping the ear primed and curious.

The modern instrumentation - piano for harpsichord, cello for gamba - and varied interpretive approaches demonstrated Bach's singular amenability to translation.

Is Bach's music adaptable because it's great, or is it great because it's so adaptable, so effectively reinvented for each new era or fashion? Not a question to be definitely answered, but at this concert, one to be agreeably pondered.

Russell Sherman, piano

With HaeSun Paik, piano, and

Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello

Music of Bach

At: Emmanuel Church, Saturday

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