An autumnal triumph for Sherman

By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / September 28, 2009

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Pleasing the audience seems to be Russell Sherman’s last thought. He plays what he wants, in his own way. And wherever there is a mystery to be probed, he’ll probe it, at the expense of more visceral excitement. Even as he was saying goodbye at the end of his free Jordan Hall recital on Thursday, with most of the audience standing and cheering, his hands were ambiguous, half thankful, half shooing us away.

Not that he doesn’t draw a crowd. The 79-year-old pianist played to a full, enthusiastic, even worshipful house - with a heartening representation of young people.

The concert also served as a christening for the New England Conservatory’s new 9-foot, American-made Steinway grand. Sherman proved this is a marvelous investment that will pay dividends in many concerts to come.

The program consisted of the complete Book 2 of Claude Debussy’s Preludes followed by the Preludes, Op. 28, of Frederic Chopin. This was a high level of difficulty, and Sherman played from memory. One worried a bit. However, the pianist was in fine form. There were few moments of uncertainty along the way, and many, many moments of inspired beauty.

He played the Debussy with infinite degrees of softness washed with pedal, as Debussy wanted, and a free sense of rhythm. Sometimes, however, the melodic line disappeared amid the mists, fields, and waters. The opening of “Bruyeres’’ lacked a simple, song-like joyfulness. Nor was there much humor in the syncopations of No. 6, “General Lavine - eccentric.’’ On the other hand, “Feux d’artifices’’ was quietly brilliant, as if the fireworks were far away, or reflected in water: a convincing way to do it, within his means.

The same light touch, moonlit coloring, and rhythmic freedom spilled over to the Chopin. The pianist, again, was doing it his own way, bringing out unsuspected inner voices, avoiding virtuoso display, and emphasizing the composer’s darker, spontaneous swirls into the bass. One sometimes missed the firm rhythm and charming melodic line, the showiness essential to these drawing-room showpieces. But then, never to be boxed, Sherman would surprise with just those things.

RUSSELL SHERMAN, PIANO At: Jordan Hall, Thursday

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