Sherman does it his way

Russell Sherman performing at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Sunday. Russell Sherman performing at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Sunday. (Michael J. Lutch)
By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / July 19, 2011

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ROCKPORT - When an artist as distinguished as Russell Sherman comes to Cape Ann, even the seagulls gather round to listen. The shutters of the Shalin Liu Performance Center, which looks out onto the ocean, were closed Sunday evening, but you could see the flying birds’ shadows behind Sherman as he concluded the 30th Rockport Chamber Music Festival with a program of Schumann and Liszt.

Sherman turned 81 this past March, an age at which pianists stop playing for the ages and start playing for themselves. His Schumann - the Opus 18 Arabeske and the Opus 17 Fantasie in C major - was of a piece with his performances of those two works at Jordan Hall last October: forceful, impetuous, sparely pedaled, and rich with rubato, the left hand demanding an attention you wouldn’t ordinarily accord it.

If you were looking for the champagne clarity of Géza Anda or the grace of Claudio Arrau and Wilhelm Kempff, you didn’t find it here. Structure in the Fantasie’s first movement was problematic; the composer’s two quirky literary heroes, Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann, ran riot. The quotation from Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte’’ that unlocks that first movement didn’t quite unlock; the second-movement wedding march was lusty, even carnal; the third movement, which Schumann at one point called “Sternbild,’’ or “constellation,’’ sounded less like a starry night and more like war in heaven.

The Liszt that followed intermission - the “Sonetto del Petrarca, No. 104’’ and the Piano Sonata in B minor, plus a single encore, “Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este’’ - seemed more conventional, perhaps because Liszt stands up better to Sherman’s heroic distensions and stormy raptures. The Sonata, a taxing half-hour of recurring themes with no break, can easily dissolve into a blur of pedal and passion, but Sherman gave it a prickly clarity and a few moonlit moments of transcendence, almost as if he were recovering from some trauma, and the fugue danced like Fred and Ginger. Those who believe a piano recital should be the personal statement of an intelligent artist got their money’s worth, and more.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at

RUSSELL SHERMAN At: Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Sunday