|A Beethoven recital by Russell Sherman (seen in 2005) packed Jordan Hall. (JENNIFER TAYLOR FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)|
Beethoven without those pesky houskeeping devils
New England Conservatory often has the curious problem of struggling to fill the seats at its own worthy and completely free concerts. But no such troubles plagued Wednesday evening's all-Beethoven recital by one of the school's most distinguished faculty members, the Boston-based piano guru Russell Sherman. Jordan Hall was packed.
The recital could be described as a typical Sherman affair, which is to say, not typical in the least. Onstage he cuts the figure of an ascetic priest administering some occult keyboard ritual, but the sounds produced are anything but solemn. At 77, Sherman still possesses a formidable technique and a highly mischievous wit, and he delights in nothing more than upending expectations. Beethoven was a perfect vehicle.
In Sherman's view, this music is often played too cautiously, in an overly groomed manner that strips away the precious element of surprise. As he once quipped, "We have sold our Faustian souls to the devils of good housekeeping."
All such devils were strictly barred from Wednesday's recital, which began with an imaginative and richly characterized account of "The Tempest" Sonata. This was not playing that prized, as ends in themselves, note-perfect accuracy, textural transparency, or sumptuous tone, but music that whirled off the stage with the vividness and immediacy of the Shakespeare play from which this sonata takes its name.
Still more striking was the late Sonata (Op. 109), to which Sherman brought a remarkable sense of freedom and fantasy. Any notion of a monumental Beethoven style was jettisoned in favor of a music of localized storms and hidden pockets of reverie. One of Sherman's favorite techniques for rendering a passage curiously fresh was to tweak the standard balances between treble and bass, so high-flown melodies typically accustomed to a deferential escort from the left hand were thrust into a thunderous dialogue, singing through the waves.
In the second half, the Sonata (Op. 90) opened not with the call-and-response phrasing one might expect, but with the sound of two musics from vastly different worlds being hurled together. Sherman put his own distinctive stamp on the "Appassionata" Sonata as well, blazing through the final pages with the notes arriving in dense squalls. Sherman has built a devoted local following over the years, and as he took his bows, he was presented with so many flowers he could barely fit through the stage door. Encores flowed readily.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.