Emmanuel Music: Russell Sherman presents three concerts featuring the complete English Suites of J. S. Bach. Each program will also include one of Bach’s three Viola da Gamba Sonatas and Bach-Busoni Chorale Preludes.
CONCERT 1: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 8:00 pm, Emmanuel Church, Boston
English Suite No.2 in A minor, BWV 807
Russell Sherman, piano
Sonata No. 3 in G minor for Viola da Gamba and Keyboard, BWV 1028
Mary Ruth (UV) Ray, viola
Minsoo Sohn, piano
Chorale Prelude, In dir ist Freund, BWV 615 (Bach-Busoni)
Chorale Prelude, Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 (Bach-Busoni)
Minsoo Sohn, piano
English Suite No. 5 in E minor, BWV 810
Russell Sherman, piano
I should stress at the beginning of this review that I write it as one of Russell Sherman’s most ardent admirers. His knowledge of his extensive repertoire, his penetrating understanding of it, his technique (even at the age of 76), and his imagination and resourcefulness of expression are second to none, in my opinion. He has distilled all his sensitivity and intelligence into a highly personal, even idiosyncratic method, which is not equally palatable to all listeners, perhaps inevitably in our age of conformity. While I can respect, enjoy, and learn from an O’Conor, an Ohlsson or an Ax, Russell Sherman brings a unique insight and sensibility to his performances, which are only accessible in the unique form he has developed over many years. I have collected his recordings and travelled many miles to attend his concerts, which in recent years have focused on Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt.
Saturday evening, as he whirled through the prelude to Bach’s second English Suite in A minor in the reverberant acoustics of Emmanuel Church, I was somewhat taken aback with the way in which the details, above all the rests and pauses in the music, dissolved into the mists of the churchy ambience. I realized that Mr. Sherman had, at least on the surface, reached back to a long-vanished style of keyboard playing which emulated the effect of nineteenth century organists playing modern instruments in cathedral-like spaces. Even as an enthusiast of historic recordings, I could not remember when I had last heard Bach played in this way, certainly not Edwin Fischer or Walter Gieseking. Russell Sherman had finally succeeded in nudging me off-balance, as he has so many others. The following movements, the Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande, grounded as they were in dance rhythms, were less conducive to the creation of a misty wall of sound, and I felt Mr. Sherman did more justice to the details of Bach’s finely pointed writing. I began to enjoy it, as I began to understand how, with his generous pedaling, Mr. Sherman used the pervading resonance to set off modulations and passing dissonances. However, once again the final movements seemed blown away by rapid gusts of running notes. The Gigue seemed to rush away in an impressionistic swirl. I had never thought of Sherman as an old-fashioned musician in any way, but in this first work, I could not help thinking he was headed in this retrograde direction.
Bach’s Viola da Gamba Sonata No. 3 in G minor followed. As much as I love the viola, this performance by Mary Ruth Ray and Sherman’s student, Minsoo Sohn, left me with the feeling that any departure from the even more beautiful viola da gamba could only be justified by exceptional musicianship, and that was notably lacking here, although Minsoo Sohn’s substantial virtues showed through. He had more of a chance to project this in the two chorale preludes arranged by Busoni, marked by a strong sense of flow, rhythm, and shape, and forceful articulation. It was mainly in this sense of structure and form that one could recognize him as a student of Russell Sherman.
When Mr. Sherman returned to play English Suite No. 5 in E minor, I noticed a change. His basic approach was the same, but the effect seemed leaner, and Sherman’s articulation came through more clearly. The clouds of sound had become more transparent. Either a confidant had tipped him off about the effect of his pedaling in the half-empty church, or my ears had adjusted. The manifold ways in which he used sonority rather than detail to project the unique harmonic and contrapuntal ideas of the English Suites were revealed, and I found myself back among the converted, admiring Mr. Sherman’s extraordinary qualities, although still feeling as if I had wandered into some unfamiliar neighborhood, where I was not sure where the streets and allies might lead. But this sort of exploration is why we keep coming back to the classics, isn’t it.
There are still two opportunities to join Russell Sherman in his journey of discovery, in Emmanuel Church on February 2 and 9, when he will be joined by other students and friends, and the viola da gamba sonatas will be played on the cello. Meanwhile Berkshire residents can look forward to Laura Jeppesen’s exquisite playing of the viola da gamba at St. James’ Church, Great Barrington, when she joins Daniel Stepner in a duel with the newfangled violin, played by Daniel Stepner, on February 9, in an evening sponsored by Aston Magna.