Russell Sherman’s adventurous afternoon

Pianist Russell Sherman, who turned 80 last week, performed pieces by Haydn and Schoenberg at Emmanuel Church on Sunday. Pianist Russell Sherman, who turned 80 last week, performed pieces by Haydn and Schoenberg at Emmanuel Church on Sunday. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / March 30, 2010

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Russell Sherman’s Sunday recital at Emmanuel Church was preceded by a few words from John Harbison, Emmanuel Music’s acting artistic director. Talking about the two composers on the program, Haydn and Schoenberg, Harbison enumerated qualities common to both masters — namely, “a sense that we never know what to expect’’ in their music, that the unforeseen is often lurking just around the corner. Yet however startling an idea seems on first encounter, it always turns out, he said, to be “exactly the right thing.’’

A good deal of that description is germane to Sherman’s artistic persona as well. Very few musicians at his level play with ideas of order the way he does. Any of the familiar characteristics of a piece — tempo, accents, texture, color, dramatic flow — may be uprooted and recast if it serves his search for the music’s inner essence. And though his interpretations may not always be “exactly the right thing,’’ a sense of the unexpected is his calling card, and time spent in his presence is almost always enlightening, as well as a little unsettling.

In each half of Sunday’s concert — played before a packed audience in the church’s intimate Parish Hall — an early work by Schoenberg was bookended by two Haydn pieces. It began with the latter’s Variations in F minor, a seemingly simple work that Sherman played with unusual phrasing, clipped accents, and a dry sound. When the main theme returns for the final time, the music suddenly veers off into a harmonic and emotional realm worlds away from what has come before. Here Sherman opened the music, the sound suddenly full and expressive, and let it resound in all its strangeness.

Both the Schoenberg works had a daring, almost improvisatory feel. The Three Piano Pieces, opus 11, traded in colors that were alternately clotted and airy. The second piece features a rocking two-note motive in the bass that most pianists play with metronomic regularity. Not Sherman, who gave it a halting, tentative feel that somehow made the music sound even more ominous than usual.

Not all of Sherman’s interventions worked. Haydn’s Sonata in D major, which closed the first half, sounded jittery and overcaffeinated, so much so that any sense of charm was lost in the outer movements. Far more successful was the Sonata in C minor, Haydn’s only piano sonata in this key and one of his most remarkable. Its first movement contains another of those unexpected dramatic vistas, and when the pianist arrived there he created something spellbinding, as if telling a listener that this was the point of all the unusual intercessions that had come before. Many pianists can play the music more evenly or with a tighter sense of structure, but few, if any, can give it the sense of suspended grace that Sherman fashioned — a sense that carried over through the lyrical slow movement and finale.

Schoenberg’s epigrammatic Six Little Piano Pieces, opus 19, are concise distillations of the composer’s atonal style. The sixth was supposedly written in the aftermath of Mahler’s funeral (it sort of alludes to the opening of his Ninth Symphony), and in Sherman’s lovely performance its tolling bells seemed to ring only a few notches above silence.

A buoyant and witty account of Haydn’s E-flat Sonata closed the recital, the one blemish being a seemingly malfunctioning key on the piano. During the curtain calls, Harbison snuck back to the piano to lead the assembled in “Happy Birthday’’ for Sherman, who turned 80 last week. This was played far more straightforwardly than anything that preceded it.

Yet after a full afternoon of having one’s ideas of order displaced, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

RUSSELL SHERMAN At: Emmanuel Church,