Author Topic: Russell Sherman Plays Beethoven  (Read 2915 times)

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Offline Todd

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Russell Sherman Plays Beethoven
« on: May 05, 2007, 08:24:26 AM »
Domo arigato, Mr Rubato.

Russell Sherman’s cycle is one I equivocated over for a few years.  On the one hand, I wanted to hear it; on the other hand, I was unsure whether to proceed given the set’s reputation.  For me at least, few cycles have more baggage to prejudice one’s listening.  Some people love the playing and some hate it – and I’ve seen relatively few in the middle – but every comment I’ve ever seen, pro or con, acknowledges that the set is downright willful and as about unorthodox as is possible.  That can lead to near tragic results (Anton Kuerti) or it can render something wonderful (Eric Heidsieck).  Where would Mr Sherman fall in the crappy-to-brilliant spectrum I wondered?  He ain’t crappy, that’s for sure.

One can pretty much hear a microcosm of Sherman’s style in the first sonata.  But that doesn’t mean his playing all sounds the same.  More on that later.  Anyway, the rather nifty F minor cycle opener begins with an Allegro that starts at a nice clip, but also sounds, rather obviously, just a bit restrained.  Sherman builds on this by picking up the pace and tension as he progresses, and he does something that he does with either delightful or maddening regularity for the rest of the cycle – he toys with tempo.  All the time.  Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s not, but it’s always unique.  He’ll dash off a figure or arpeggio, seemingly for no immediately apparent reason, then he might slow up – or he might not.  He often goes for relative extremes.  Why go slow when one can go really slow?  Same applies to going fast.  Sorta makes sense if you want to stand out.  Another trait that is readily apparent is Sherman’s enormous dynamic range.  He’ll play wonderfully at the lower end of the spectrum and then positively erupt in forte passages.  His tone is always attractive, if perhaps a smidgeon of hardness creeps in during the most deafening portions of his playing.  The splendid recording, with lotsa Audiophile® Raumklang (I just love that word), makes the most of Sherman’s dynamic tendencies.  Anyway, moving on to the Adagio, one hears some really slow playing – them extremes again – enlivened by the boundless nuance Sherman throws in.  One also hears a bass line that is both steady and flexible, as well as dark and richly sonorous, underlying a searching right hand.  The Menuetto displays much in the way of Sherman’s rubato and (not so) heavy-handed intervention.  The long pauses can be considered contrived, yet they are affective.  Sherman’s phrasing is notably accented, and usually front-loaded, if you will, and some may not find as much to like.  The work closes with a decidedly flexible (or manhandled) Prestissimo, where nary a bar goes by without some type of fidgeting, and where Sherman makes the lower registers growl nicely, save for a surprisingly tender middle section.  He’s all over the map – and it’s a new map – and it works!

So, too, does the second sonata.  Sherman again sees fit to push a pull the music to and fro.  He starts off ever so slightly slowly, then he accelerates noticeably.  He lengthens and shortens passages and pauses to fit his purposive style.  He’s thoroughly examined everything and wants it to show.  Again, Sherman’s dynamic range is very much in evidence, which, in some ways, off-sets the minuses of his style.  If minuses they be.  The Largo sounds a bit un-Largo-esque.  It’s just a bit too sprightly in manner, a bit too plucky in the bass.  Heavy and dark it’s not; rich and vibrant it is.  Yet, somehow, it works, and Sherman does see fit to add a bit of dark intensity to his playing between around 5’10” and 5’40”.  His overall tempo stays pretty solid for the movement, which isn’t the case for the Scherzo.  He notably rushes some arpeggios early on, then he slows things down – with minor delays and pauses embedded within other delays and pauses – in the middle section, before returning to his style at the outset.  Yet it all works very well.  The Rondo brings the overall quality of the recording down just a bit.  At times Sherman just rushes straight through some music where other pianists make sure to add tonal and dynamic variation.  (Is Sherman merely being antithetical to be antithetical?)  Things really pick up in the middle section.  Too much so, in fact.  It sounds too pressed to be maximally effective.  Then Sherman plays in a most idiosyncratic manner as the end approaches.  But, for what it is, it works.

The final sonata of the opening trio often takes things too far.  This was the last sonata recorded for the cycle, so maybe Sherman wanted to impart even more of his ideas than earlier on, who knows?  What I do know is that aside from a rather conventional (and good) opening 20-25 seconds, Sherman’s copiously deployed devices detract more than delight.  Surely the music should swell and flow more smoothly than here.  Some flashes of brilliance appear, but more often Sherman opts to play even standard passages like the ascending and descending runs in overly interventionist fashion.  The Adagio is more successful.  At times, especially after 1’20,” Sherman seems to strip away all his stylistic artifice and play in a purposely unfocused yet engrossing style.  He’s wandering the wilderness, if you will, despondent and alone, but then menacing bass interrupts the progress, and forces the pianist back on the more standard musical path.  It’s rather nifty.  The Scherzo, like the opening Allegro con brio, starts in more or less standard fashion, and maintains a nicely constant overall tempo, with clear part playing, exemplified by the obvious scampering of the left hand.  So far, nothing too out of the ordinary.  The middle section sounds both hazy and sharply punctuated, which creates a few nice effects, even if they seem more novel than profound.  To close the work, Sherman plays the opening ascending runs with great energy and clarity, but then he reverts to his overly mannered style thereafter.  At times he sounds like he’s emulating a freer style.  It’s sort of faux improvisation if you will.  The description reads a little fuzzy, doesn’t it?  Imagine how it sounds.

So a mixed if good opening trio left me a bit concerned about what to expect for the fourth.  Worries weren’t necessary.  Sherman opens the Allegro molto e con brio with a light, brisk touch, then he punctures that soundworld with some loud middle register playing of not a little power before returning to playing of nearly cloudy softness.  The fortissimo blasts can seem like overkill at times, but they’re really not.  Then one becomes aware of something wonderful.  Despite (or perhaps even because of) his little tempi changes (and here they’re less intrusive than elsewhere), the whole movement possesses a most attractive rhythmic underpinning.  The Largo is grand and very weighty, with sharply truncated chords to end phrases and well timed pauses – here sounding shorter than average and lending a more urgent, propulsive feel to the music.  Overall it’s a bit somber, which is good, and it’s also, well, theatrical.  A mini, piano-only opera, if you will.  The Allegro manages something unique in my listening experience: it sounds deliberate and lyrical and flowing at the same time.  Sherman can’t resist throwing in nice touches beyond even that, like the rich rolling bass punctuated by strong ending chords in the middle section, and manages to end the movement with a hint of, well, mystery.  The Rondo again manages to marry seemingly opposite styles: the surprisingly direct and upbeat sound seems to be aloof and abstract, too.  The middle section is contradictory, too; it sounds both smooth and almost biting.  How, and why, does Sherman do all these things?  Dunno.  But I like it.  A lot.  It may even be among my favorites. 

Things continue on nicely with the first of the Op 10 trio.  Sherman opens the first sonata with an Allegro molto e con brio characterized by strong and reasonably swift ascending arpeggios.  A bit more bite would not have been unwelcome, but Sherman follows with a slow second theme that mixes downright beautiful passages with more vigorous ones.  It’s sort of a sophisticated He-Man approach.  In achieving this, Sherman inserts many Shermanisms, but not only do they not matter, they help.  The Adagio molto is perhaps a bit too slow for some, but that is caused by unusually long sustains rather than general sluggishness.  Sherman again offers some beautiful playing as well as broad dynamic and textural contrasts.  As happens with some regularity in this cycle, these contrasts create more of an intellectually rather than emotionally satisfying experience.  The work ends with a Prestissimo that sounds more Presto than is ideal, but the sheer scale of the playing and the beefy, growling bass and slightly edgy upper registers make it a wholly satisfying experience.  Good stuff.

The second of the trio is also good stuff.  The Allegro is brisk and surprisingly upbeat (I expected something different), and contains only minor Shermanisms.  The most pronounced mannerism is Sherman’s tendency to really hammer out the loud music.  It almost sounds overdone at times, the nearly oppressively loud left hand especially.  The Allegretto is more imbued with individual touches, and they mostly work.  One thing is sure: many of the interpretive tools are more subtly deployed than elsewhere in the cycle.  The repeat-included Presto (always a plus for me) is bouncy and fun, and also a bit on the muscular side.

The great Op 10/3 sonata can be turned into a veritable pianistic meal, and Sherman does just that.  The Presto is rich and warm to open, yet it also contains plenty o’ pep and, especially, weight.  Extraordinarily clear part playing adds to the sense of Big Idea pianism, and all of the tempo fluctuations seem to work.  The great Largo opens in a gloomy, dark and thick ‘n’ slow (in the best sense of that phrase) way.  At 1’12”, the tragedy sets in.  Sherman accents sharp treble notes ever so noticeably before bending the tempo to his will to achieve a soundworld of exasperated desperation, and near savage inner turmoil.  Perhaps now I’m overdoing it, but I don’t think so.  Sherman proceeds to make repeated chords sound almost thrummed as he tosses in a sense of utter emotional exhaustion into the mix.  It’s melodramatic; it’s excessive; it’s compelling.  Next, Sherman plays the Menuetto with surface relaxation that never quite masks the tension below the surface.  His rubato is more intrusive here than in the first two movements, but it still works.  Perilously close to not working is the Trio, which here sounds almost like a bitter parody of sorts, with Sherman tossing it off with disdain.  The Rondo is quite something, filled to the brim with musical chicanery.  Sherman likes to play the fast portions fast, but he’ll also play ‘em soft – quite soft – only to then slow way down, to a lazy yet pranksterish tempo (like between 3’10” and 3’20”) seemingly to throw the listener off.  Sherman really pulls out all the stops, but something is ultimately missing: Sherman never makes the conception jell.  The individual parts are far more than the sum of the parts.  That’s fine, but that limits just how highly one can rate this recording.

How does a pianist approach the Pathetique nowadays?  It’s so played, so recorded.  Of course, anyone undertaking a cycle must figure out some way to play the work, and so Sherman does his (presumably) best.  The Grave has his imprint.  First, the opening is huge, explosive, and fortissimo, with the decay is cut short.  It’s interesting, unique even.  But is it proper?  It is dramatic in a theatrical sort of way, but it lacks emotional depth.  The following Allegro molto e con brio is a bit on the slow side of Allegro and a bit on the heavy side of con brio, but it works for the most part.  Sherman does play around with tempi quite a bit, though, so anyone wanting a straight-shot approach will cringe.  The Adagio cantabile sounds warm and rich, with a nice, enveloping, grand sound.  Any sense or urgency goes missing, as does true cohesion.  In place of those, one gets incredible clarity with respect to the left and right hands.  Each musical strand is complete in its own right.  It seems a fair tradeoff.  The Rondo is afflicted with ubiquitous shifts in tempo and wavering and undulating accents, but it has the same massive, crashing chords as the opening movement, and as the end approaches, Sherman plays with crushing intensity.  So, how do you like your Pathetique?  This is a unique one, for sure, but . . .

The little Op 14 sonatas, fine little piano divertimenti if ever there were any, don’t really stand up so well to Sherman’s approach.  The first, in particular.  Sure, the Allegro is quick and light to open, but it doesn’t take long for Sherman to build up the power to a point where the music starts to wilt a bit.  Offsetting this is clear part playing, and, as a wild card, the left hand playing is amazingly insistent and “pokey,” by which I mean played staccato with Shermanesque accenting.  The Allegretto is just too: it’s too slow, too serious, too obvious an attempt at individuality.  The Rondo finds Sherman laying his rubato on thick – too thick.  No two notes seem to flow ideally, and a clumpy sound develops.  It’s not awful, but it’s not great or even especially good.  The second sonata fares a bit better, not that one could guess that right off.  The Allegro here finds Sherman resolutely refusing to just let the simple, beautiful melody flow.  Them little tricks of his, they do obtrude.  The sound Sherman extracts from his instrument is quite fine, though, and the runs are quick and light, and the clarity superb.  The Andante, in contrast, is just plain good.  Sherman takes it with a slightly broad tempo, but he maintains an upbeat, perky, and delightfully quirky mien.  In the Scherzo some phrases are too rushed, some too loud, but by this time it doesn’t matter.  It’s a fine, fun recording, but not a monumental one.  (And who really wants that?)

Over time the Op 22 has really grown on me.  I’ve always liked it – is it possible not to? – but now I really like it.  So, apparently, does Sherman.  The opening Allegro con brio is right on target: it’s well paced, clear, with comparatively little in the way of tempo tomfoolery.  Most of said tomfoolery occurs in slower passages, where Sherman can sound a bit stiff and hardened (between 6’ and 6’08,” for instance), but otherwise he’s spot on.  The Adagio con molto espressione sounds lovely.  Sherman’s playing is rich and warm, and he plays it straight, throwing in only minor (indeed micro) touches.  The Menuetto pulls off the same trick from the same labeled movement from 10/3 – the surface sounds relaxed, but tension exists below the surface, which manifests itself every time Sherman interjects a bit of power into the playing.  The middle section is fast and intense and well articulated.  The closing Rondo is mostly sunny, with Shermanisms largely reserved for the bass at the beginning and the harder hitting middle section.  Something nice happens with this sonata: while clearly possessed of all of Sherman’s thought-provoking, “intellectual” traits, one can actually just sit back and (really) enjoy this one.  A whole lot.

Alas, that’s not really possible with the Op 26 sonata.  Sherman opens the work with a lovely Andante that flows nicely enough, but he can’t resist indulging himself in the variations.  Stilted rhythm, off-beat accents, (sort of) wild man rubato, attention grabbing stiffness (though only in short, um, bursts), blocky phrases: all show up at least once.  The effect sounds far from awful, but it also sounds far from normal or truly compelling.  The Scherzo ends up notable for relatively pronounced tempo tinkering, though mostly with the right hand.  Sherman plays too fast, then too slow, almost creating an even whole, all while maintaining a reasonably solid left hand base.  The more forceful music shows off Sherman’s power to nice effect, so not all is lost.  The Funeral March, well, where to begin?  It has a decidedly march-like cadence, though not of the martial sort.  It’s more beatnik in nature.  Sherman starts off somewhat softly only to increase the volume of his playing to offer dynamic contrast, almost to the point of excess.  The middle section sounds odd, more like a parody of serious music than serious music itself.  To close a unique take on this work, Sherman decides to close uniquely, opening the Allegro with a brilliant, blurry, undernourished flurry, only to pick up both strength and clarity as he proceeds.  There’s a whole lot of interesting parts, but they make for a somewhat baffling whole. 

Now to the great first sonata quasi una fantasia.  The first bar or two are solid and straight forward, but then it’s back to Shermanisms.  First things first: he adds lengthy pauses.  Don’t know why, and it don’t really work, but for some reason he front loads this device; as the music proceeds such oddities become less pronounced.  (Or I got used to them.)  The Allegro announces its arrival with a crashing chord and some nimble fingerwork, but extended pauses also reappear, muting the beneficial effect.  Something about the playing sounds forced.  The music becomes episodic rather than flowing.  Things finally seem to click with the Adagio con espressione, which sounds like a richer, more ruminative version of the wonderful Andante theme largely shorn of the peskier points of contention.  Sherman does make the lower register act like something akin to a musical poke in the eye a few times, and while I’m not sure why he does it, it doesn’t detract from the proceedings.  Sherman wraps up the work with an Allegro vivace that sounds scarily straight, complete with drive and mostly minor deviations in tempo.  The huge crescendo near the end is truly massive, and the rousing conclusion caps off a good, but too-unusual-to-be-great recording.

Now to the second sonata quasi una fantasia.  The opening Adagio sostenuto seems almost tailor made for Sherman in some ways.  It’s moody and gloomy and mysterious, and very receptive to interpretive license.  Sherman does his best to create a moody and gloomy and mysterious feel, and the warm-ish sound, sustained tension, and comparatively few tweaks all combine to make for a strong open.  The Allegretto is striking, with Sherman’s rubato deftly deployed and his usual fine dynamics on full display.  The movement ends up being something of a stand-alone piece rather than an integrated musical bridge, but that’s fine.  The Presto agitato is fast and intense right out of the gate, with a rolling thunder effect in the bass.  There are pauses and fits-n-starts and such, but they add an agitated, unsettled quality to the music that works well.  But it lacks coherence and ends up being the relative weak link in a good version of the work.  Had it been just a bit tighter, it would have been a splendid version.

Up to this point, Sherman’s cycle is generally (very) good but unsteady, and always thought provoking.  Would Sherman ever have a string of Big Hits?  Yes!  It starts with the Pastorale.  The work opens with an Allegro characterized by extended sustain (with room sound enhancing the effect) that creates an enveloping, comfortable sound.  Sherman moves ahead at a leisurely pace more akin to a nice Allegretto than Allegro, and his tell tale left hand clarity and insistence forms a strong basis for the music.  Again, his huge dynamic range plays its part, but here the forte passages seem, well, organic: they flow naturally from the music and never gratuitously overpower the material.  Just after 6’20” or so, the playing assumes some real urgency for a brief time, before fading back to more leisurely music in a most satisfying way.  In many places, the tolling bass is both hypnotic and reassuring.  The Andante manages to pull off some contradictory feats with aplomb.  The tempo is slightly broad, but there’s a surprisingly urgent feel to the music and the liltingly beautiful music conveys inner anguish.  (Think inner tears, if you will.)  To offer maximum contrast, the middle section is more upbeat, but in a fidgety, unsettled way.  The Scherzo finds Sherman deploying his normal tricks, with loud, striking playing offering contrast to slow, quiet playing which has a few sudden decelerations and pauses.  The Rondo, well, somehow I just knew Sherman would take things to extremes, slowing things way down, exaggerating the music for overall contrast.  He does that, but he makes it work extraordinarily well.  Quite a feat.  Throw in some striking individual effects – the massive crescendo and diminuendo after 3’, say, and what one is left with is a top flight, albeit odd, reading of this great sonata.

But it’s not as good as what follows.  Indeed, Sherman’s traversal of the three great Op 31 sonatas is uniformly superb.  Great, actually.  Here, the peak is the first of the trio.  It’s not like Sherman really changes his approach or anything.  Indeed, the Allegro vivace utilizes the same interpretive combinations familiar from prior sonatas to create a light yet occasionally beefy sound.  The playing is alert and dexterous, yet it’s never pressed for any reason.  The second theme is unique: it’s dense and, well, earthy and folksy, in an intellectual sort of way.  For some reason, the image that popped into my head while listening was that of a stuffy college professor downing a few, shedding said stuffy decorum, and getting down.  It’s fun and sophisticated, refined yet bawdy, and gracefully condescending, all while tacitly and silently admitting various shortcomings.  The Adagio grazioso opens with somewhat blurred trills which then give way to faux refined playing full of charm.  The middle section is brisk, with Sherman favoring a more punchy, pokey staccato, which seems to add weight to the proceedings, though in a slightly begrudging manner, almost as if Sherman is saying “This music is light fun, damn it, so keep it that way!”  As the movement progresses, Sherman pushes and pulls the tempo, and truncates or elongates notes and phrases in a marked style, but it all works.  The bass trills near the end are extremely weighty and pronounced and somehow humorous – silly, even.  To close, Sherman plays the Rondo in a deliberate, almost formal fashion, and lays his tricks on thick.  Hardly a bar seems to go by without some type of heavy-handed intervention.  But when one combines superbly clear part playing, delightfully distorted pauses, and seemingly arbitrary accelerations and decelerations, it just proves too much to resist.  Interestingly, Anton Kuerti’s cycle peaks very high with this work, so maybe Sherman’s take just proves that a heavy interpretive hand pays big dividends here.  Whatever the case may be, this ranks among my favorites.

Sherman’s strengths lend themselves to a second sonata of not a little distinction.  He opens with an extended and almost artificially slow Largo, and immediately after the opening arpeggio ends, the music changes, hinting at a tempestuous movement to come.  Dynamics, drama, and powerful bass all work together to deliver the goods, but it can and does sound a bit contrived.  This is what Sherman thinks dramatic music sounds like.  It’s not fully engaging emotionally.  “So what?” I say, because when Sherman leads off some phrases with an almost breathless left hand, the effect is exciting.  The Adagio is, as one would expect, altogether calmer and more beautiful.  The bass again grabs one’s attention, for its superb clarity if nothing else.  (There’s something else, though.)  Extended pauses and deliberate phrasing won’t be to everyone’s taste, and the thoroughly thought-through style means that, as with the opener, emotion goes missing at times.  It all works, though.  To close, Sherman opens the Allegretto with urgent, unsettled middle register notes before pounding out short ‘n’ sharp bass notes, a pattern he then repeats, resulting in a sort of ceaseless nervous energy, with the almost twitched out upper register notes only enhancing the effect.  The overall conception is decidedly unorthodox – some would say weird – and I can see some people hating this one.  I love it. 

The final sonata also succeeds fabulously.  The Allegro finds Sherman putting on a show.  He’ll notably elongate a chord, quickly tinkle out a phrase, or otherwise do what he wants.  Why?  Why not?!  When the music picks up, so does Sherman, doing all the same things, just a bit more quickly and vigorously, as with the staggering crescendo at about 4’40”.  In some way, all this jiggery-pokery ought not to work, but it does.  Surely this sonata begs for it.  And that’s a good thing, because the Scherzo is even worse in terms of Sherman’s intervention.  The bass line is sonically hunkered down most of the time, waiting to not so benevolently jump up and box the listener’s ears.  The right hand melodies are staggered and uneven and unruly.  It’s all terribly mischievous, in a drunken goblin sort of way.  Things relax a bit in the Menuetto, though even here Sherman just can’t seem to not play with the score.  For instance, he’ll be playing things nicely enough, then he’ll rush a passage or pull back for no reason.  Again, why not?!  The whole thing comes to a most caricatured end in the Presto con fuoco.  Sherman bobs and grooves, stops and starts, and even lollygags.  Such unevenness may unnerve some listeners, but when one throws in the irresistible drive and energy, one can’t resist.  I know I shouldn’t like this one as much as I do, but I can’t help myself. 

Now to that delightful pair of sonatinas known as Op 49.  Sherman continues to throw in his normal tricks, but he knows not to make too much of these works – that would court disaster.  The first sonata opens with a relatively straight Andante.  It’s mostly tender and attractive, with the comparatively small outburst there for textural contrast.  The Rondo ends up sounding like a wash of sound, aided by the relatively distant recording, and when that combines with the perfectly judged amount of pep (the interpretive cousin of the ever so important oomph), one gets a delicious musical bon-bon.  The second sonata opens with a light, fun, and attractive Allegro ma non troppo, though the middle section boasts flashes of angst.  The Tempo di Menuetto closer finds Sherman incapable of restraining his tempo-altering tendencies, so plenty of off kilter pauses can be hard.  Some may find it a bit too contrived, though I find it just about contrived enough.  Great?  Nah.  Doesn’t need to be.

The Op 53 should be, and Sherman approaches (and maybe achieves) greatness.  The Allegro con brio opens at a nice, brisk pace, though the overall sound remains somewhat subdued.  The bass, especially, sounds restrained, almost as though the piano is a giant, coiled musical snake poised to strike at the right opportunity.  As the music moves into the second section, Sherman applies his rubato more liberally than before (when he wasn’t exactly paleoconservative), and then in the long ascending passage leading into the first long run, Sherman plays jackhammer chords while pushing and pulling the music to and fro.  Here’s where extremes start to come in: Sherman plays the fast music very fast, the slow music very slow, and forte and louder passages in a crackling and pounding manner.  Some may find it impossibly mannered – which it most certainly is – but that doesn’t mean it’s not refreshing and invigorating – because it most certainly is that, too!  Yes, yes, it’s an overwrought showboat approach, and generally I dislike that, but here I’m defenseless; I love it.  The Introduzione sounds very slow and very powerful and very labored.  That’s not to say Sherman struggles with the music, but rather that he creates the aural illusion of a protagonist carrying some overwhelming emotional burden, sullenly resigned to his inner turmoil.  The whole movement carries on like that until an extremely long final note fades to a lovely, more mature, and more accepting of fate Rondo, where the long transitional trill offers a stable, somewhat subdued base for the thundering eruption of power that accompanies it.  If one never senses joy in the playing, then at least one hears relief after the sullenness of the middle movement.  So it goes as the music waxes and wanes, between quiet spells recalling prior music and throbbing, violent playing offering musical catharsis, until a towering end.  Yes, it’s heavy handed, but what can I say, it’s stupendous. 

After such a stellar performance, it’s only natural that the next work, a possibly “lesser” work, wouldn’t be as impressive.  Sherman opens Op 54 with an In Tempo di Menuetto that sounds somberly dramatic and fully satisfying if perhaps not very menuetto-like in the opening, lyrical section.  The octaves are beefy and loud, yet seem, well, soft at heart – sort of like a big, burly, scary lookin’ dude who’s really a softy.  It makes for nice contrast and tension.  It should come as no surprise that the next appearance of each section finds Sherman trotting out Shermanisms, here to excellent effect.  The opening section has rubato lathered on, and the octaves section is more strident than before – not too much, mind you, but enough.  The last portion of the movement gradually dissolves into wonderful trills before the whole thing lazes away.  The Allegretto sounds comparatively fast and mightily manipulated when it comes to tempo, but it retains a slight softness and lacks overwhelming intensity.  (As it should.)  It’s sort of a soft-core virtuoso display, with only the more biting coda sounding more standard.  So it’s not as impressive as the Waldstein.  It needn’t be.

The great Appasionata follows and offers some interesting things.  It also seems to miss a few things.  The Allegro assai starts off dark and tense and restrained.  The first excursion into more powerful music, while not lacking in power, is likewise somewhat restrained.  The dark hue remains.  Something’s gonna happen.  Something sinister?  While one waits for whatever that something is, one can (and does!) revel in fine articulation and control, even while at high speed.  The flight into the upper registers just after 4’ is simply masterful, the crescendo after 4’30” towering, and the successive upward thrusts after 5’30” punchy in a Roy Jones Jr kinda way.  Everything conveys controlled passion.  Nothing sinister here.  But wait, what about the last part?  Oh, there’s good stuff there: the final ascent to high tension music around and after 8’ keeps one on the edge of one’s barcalounger, and Sherman pounds out the bass notes and exorcizes out the high ones, before the final (near) eruption leads to an exhausted coda.  Whew!  But the listener may not really work up a musico-emotional sweat.  The Andante con moto offers some needed (?) rest.  It’s warm and surprisingly gracious.  Only the occasionally halting rubato may offer fits for some – or delight for others.  Don’t let that warmth and graciousness fool you, though: Sherman keeps the music taut, especially during the fast variation.  The ending Allegro ma non troppo opens with fierce, stiff, gallop-y notes, then speeds up while quieting down.  Then, pow!  Sort of.  Blunted bass notes restrain the first outburst, but the tension has risen.  It rises some more.  Just after 7’, the good stuff comes.  Sherman starts hitting the ivories hard, then very fast, and it all culminates in a thrilling end.  So what’s missing, you may be wondering?  Abandon and true passion.  It seems overthought.  No biggie, not really.  I like this recording.

The fine little Op 78 sonata fares quite well.  The Adagio cantabile is definitely beautiful and singing, and the Allegro ma non troppo finds Sherman injecting all his standard traits, though here it’s mostly in his sly left hand which supports his flight-of-fancy right.  A few hints of steel are the only negatives (if negative they be) to be heard.  Sherman positively makes a meal of the Allegro vivace.  It becomes an edgy Scherzo under his fingers, as he pushes the overall tempo, deploys exaggerated accelerations, and bunches phrases.  It becomes Beethoven-Meets-The Marx Brothers.  That’s a compliment.

The next nice little late work opens with a Presto alla tedesca that’s suitably quick, but the movement has an overarching waltz-like rhythm to it, with rubato aplenty.  The cuckoo motif is pushed and pulled around, but never too much.  It seems to take on a modern sound – rather like some of the early 20th Century homages to music from centuries past.  The Andante sounds more pressed than most, losing a bit of gravitas as a result, but also gaining some dramatic impact.  The Vivace is rushed through, generating fun and excitement, though some may very much dislike Sherman’s manhandling of the music. 

Jumping right into the Les Adieux finds Sherman opening the opening Adagio with long, sustained chords that sound a bit contrived.  He’s trying too hard to put some emotion into it.  The rest of the Adagio is similarly contrived, though never overwrought.  The Allegro is quicker and sounds downright chipper and giddy.  So is this a sad farewell or a drunken going-away party?  Well, despite some swelling crescendos that sound big (or at least big-ish), nice contrasts throughout, and Sherman’s pushing and pulling of the music, the answer is I don’t know.  It is a smaller scale, more intimate take on the piece, though.  The Andante espressivo actually manages to sound “bigger,” and Sherman tries to make it sound sad, but it seems a bit artificial.  Nicely played bass darkens the sound world nicely though.  The Vivacissimamente keeps things on the small side at the open, but there’s a sense of anticipation, which then blossoms into a celebratory, jovial, and just a bit boisterous welcome back.  Here it seems that the individual details are more interesting than the whole, but the whole is still interesting, if not a world-beater.

The Op 90 sounds better.  The first movement starts with brooding, dark, and heavy – but, perversely, in a good way! – chords which set the stage for a movement of drama and heft.  The faster passages are clean and hard-edged, left-right clarity is superb, strong contrasts abound, and the whole thing has an intense feel.  Throw in some superb interpretive tricks, like a tolling bell effect created by repeated notes around 2’ in, and one has a fine opener.  The second movement sounds flowing, graceful, and decidedly lyrical, though some louder notes have a slightly astringent tinge to them, which adds some variety.  (I think I should investigate Sherman’s Schubert.)  Anyway, this is a winner.

Things get even better with Op 101.  But they also sound a bit different than normal.  The Allegretto ma non troppo opener sounds warm and autumnal, if you will, and Sherman plays it relatively straight tempo-wise.  The music just flows, and that late Beethoven sound world pops into being.  Pronounced, almost gaudy bass notes intrude around 2’ in, but they seem to be nothing more than fleeting gestures, though they return in even grander form around 3’30”.  As a whole, the opening movement is concise and moving, somewhat unexpectedly.  The Vivace all Marcia sounds grand and bold, as befits the music, but there’s also a somewhat disjointed feel.  Sherman seems at sea sometimes, just drifting along.  The middle section has an even more disjointed feel, yet it sounds friendly and playful and almost childish, in a most becoming way.  Then it’s back to the somewhat off-kilter opening material.  Why played thusly?  Why not?  The Adagio ma non troppo, con affeto is drawn out and lovely, lyrical, and searching, and it remains comparatively light.  The closing movement starts with a bright, celebratory, very dance-like, and buoyant Allegro.  Sherman keeps his distance, though.  The fugue arrives with a thundering open and is deliciously fluid and inviting throughout.  There are also some superb little things in the music, such as some wonderful little repeated figures on either side of 5’30” that I never paid much attention to before.  This is a unique reading of the work, and one that manages to pull off several tricks at once.  It definitely evokes the late LvB sound world the music needs, but it also sounds wonderfully flexible and tonally variable.  It’s not just musical granite; it’s more, well, human.  What a fresh, beautiful take on the work.

The great Op 106 opens with a fast Allegro which itself has accelerated passages, and other tempo tomfoolery is in bountiful supply.  While the music certainly sounds grand at times, it seems more a Herculean pianistic effort here; the piano is being manhandled to be manhandled.  Sherman definitely has fine technique, but given what he opts to do, he sounds like he’s working a bit harder than normal.  Still, the energy and excitement levels remain high, almost like it’s a middle aged man’s last hurrah.  He’s gonna show them kids what’s what.  At times it seems like Sherman is only gliding along the surface of the music, though, and not really plumbing the depths, but then something will come along – the massive outburst at 7’32”, say – to remind the listener who’s playing.  The Scherzo, in contrast, is taken at a slower – but not slow! – tempo, and Sherman likes to front-load his phrases, with strength and speed instantly switching to something more drawn out.  What sounds to be some near-slips can be heard, but the overall energy level and some occasional beefy playing make for a fine movement.  But it’s surely the great Adagio where Sherman leaves his mark.  It opens in an unusually tense fashion, and is un-slow (at 17’38”, I’d hesitate to say it’s really fast), with the tension making it seem faster than it is.  There’s below-the-surface seething and anguish, and that doesn’t let up as the second section starts.  Indeed, it’s as unrelenting as the opening section.  Something goes missing in this slightly undifferentiated approach, but something is gained with this stylistic sameness.  Around 6’ in things change.  A sense of calm despondency descends on the playing for a short while.  Still, the movement remains uncommonly tense and anguished right on through to the end.  The concluding movement opens with a Largo that maintains the preceding tension in a most un-Largo-like fashion – it’s a bit quick.  Really, though, it merely serves as a bridge to the great fugue, which starts with expected strength and oomph.  As it continues, it’s clear that this is not the clearest, not the fastest, and not the most intense fugue around, but enough of these traits are there to satisfy, and when they combine with what sounds like not a little delight derived from unfurling the music, the whole thing works.  This is very much a non-standard take on this work, and I have a feeling that people will either love it or hate it.  I love it.  It’s smaller, more personal, and more direct than many readings, and reminds me of Paul Badura-Skoda’s take in that regard.  But Sherman’s more cavalier treatment of the music makes it quite different.

That leaves the final trio of sonatas, and here I must say that Sherman’s style results in less satisfying recordings, though they still satisfy in their own way.  Op 109 opens with a Vivace ma non troppo with that nice late-LvB sound, though Sherman’s penchant for tempo tinkering starts to erode the solidity of the music.  That written, Sherman’s massive power during the towering crescendos adds philosophical weight as well as physical weight to the music.  The Prestissimo opens with bone-crushing power and, due at least in part to the more straight-forward delivery – is more successful.  The final movement opens with a lovely, slow, and deliberate Andante theme that sounds most decidedly transportive.  But then it turns exaggerated and excessive – just like that – with the first variation.  It’s just overdone.  Sure, it evokes what it’s supposed to evoke, at least to some extent, but the effect is not exactly fully endearing.  The same can be written about the second variation.  The third stays exaggerated, but since it is exaggerated compared to the others, it works better.  Suffice it to say, the Shermanisms displayed through to the end lessen the work’s impact.  It’s not bad, but it could have been better.

Alas, things don’t improve with Op 110.  In fact, or at least in opinion, things sound less compelling.  The Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo sounds quite nice at the open, and boasts a gently prancing left hand, but then Sherman’s mannerisms some to the fore and sound too precious and saccharine.  Again, it’s not bad, but it’s not ideally compelling.  The Allegro molto sounds predictably strong, but it also sounds unpredictably thick and drab.  The Adagio ma non troppo sounds just a bit too cold.  Yes, it’s desolate music, or can be, but ideally it should be a little less cold than this.  The fugue is very formal and serious and deliberate, but somehow distant, and the repeated chords prior to the inverted fugue start off stiff and deliberate, but quickly build up in volume and power, but they never quite pop.  Given Sherman’s penchant for power, I expected more.  The inverted fugue is much like the original one, and the ending is powerful indeed.  It’s hard to really describe what’s wrong here.  Much of the playing is superb, and some flashes of brilliance are there, but it’s all just a bit too distant and forced. 

The cycle closes with an Op 111 that betters its two immediate predecessors, but that ultimately can’t quite compete with the very best out there.  The Maestoso, after a brooding open, sounds biting and dark, but not especially fearsome or imposing.  As the music becomes fiercer, Sherman’s playing does become more biting and sinister, but in an almost caricatured way.  It sounds almost darkly comic, as though Mephistopheles is playing a rather brutal practical joke, if you will.  It’s not without merit, but it’s not what I generally prefer.  The Arietta sounds weighty and peculiarly direct.  It’s beautiful, but not too beautiful.  It’s also not especially transcendental; it’s more ambulatory and questing, until the second half, when it becomes quietly urgent and does a much better job of establishing that late-LvB sound world.  The segue to the first variation is fluid and uneventful, as is the variation itself.  It’s resigned to whatever will come.  The second variation has greater tension and more urgency, but is still somewhat resigned.  The third variation is fast and boisterous and not especially jazzy.  Then things go flat.  The long chains of trills sound curiously uninvolving, and the entire post-third variation sound world sounds plain and direct and earthbound.  Sure, it’s well played, and it’s better than 109 and 110, but something important goes missing.  One always hopes for a stunning closer to the great thirty-two, but one doesn’t always get what one wants, now does one?

I really like this cycle.  In some ways I guess I shouldn’t.  It’s not very proper after all.  Sherman is about as cavalier a pianist as I’ve heard.  He throws in individual – or idiosyncratic if you prefer – touches everywhere.  He doesn’t maintain a common stylistic approach for all of the works, or within a work, or even within a movement sometimes.  He’s not overly devout; he’s utterly irreverent.  He’s self-indulgent.  Yet for the most part his approach works.  Sure, his late sonatas hardly match up to the best out there, but at his best he brings unique insight and vitality to the music.  I’m not sure I’d say his playing is revelatory, as the uncommonly well-advertised producer Gunther Schuller writes, but it offers more than enough musical food for thought.  At least on the first go-round (and even the second and third), one doesn’t really know what expect next.  Subsequent listens simply reveal something missed the last time.  That’s a very good thing.  But it is also, well, weird, at least in this case.  I’ve referred to Alfred Brendel as Mr Quirky, and he is, within the context of mainstream pianists.  Sherman falls well outside of the mainstream.  His playing is engaging, probing, tonally attractive, and he makes one approach the works afresh.  That’s another very good thing.  In the idiosyncratic pianist sweepstakes, he’s much, much more to my liking than Anton Kuerti in his 70s cycle and approaches Eric Heidsieck in overall quality.  Yes, I’m very glad I got this cycle, but it most certainly will not be to everyone’s liking.  For those who crave something new and unique, get it now.  This set is an experience.

(My obvious thanks to Dennis DeYoung.)
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  • Guest
Re: Russell Sherman Plays Beethoven
« Reply #1 on: May 05, 2007, 09:47:22 AM »
thanks Todd.

I have been listening to King Quirky, Glenn Gould playing Beethoven. Much of what you say of Sherman's LvB is what I would say of Gould's LvB.