Schumann’s scenes of childhood, unrequited love

yoon s. byun/globe staff
Pianist Russell Sherman and tenor Frank Kelley performing at Emmanuel Church on Sunday.

The poet James Fenton has written about the purity and intensity of joy we experience as young children through activities as simple as dancing, jumping, and singing. There is a kind of mercy, he says, in what he calls the “primal erasure,’’ the forgetting of these moments, or else their loveliness might spoil us for life.

Yet there is also a kind of perverse pleasure in trying to recall them nonetheless, at least for Romantic artists such as Schumann. In his “Kinderszenen’’ (“Scenes From Childhood’’), the composer stands warmly at the window of a lost childhood world, pouring invented memories into 13 poetic miniatures with names like “Curious Story’’ and “Important Event’’ that hint at the youthful vistas reimagined within.

The challenge of this music for the virtuoso player lies not in its notes but in their interpretation, as the piece requires a mature artist’s poetic wisdom yet also a capacity for a more naive sense of play, of fantasy, and of wonder. I think it was this blend of qualities that made Russell Sherman’s account of the “Kinderszenen’’ on Sunday at Emmanuel Church as satisfying as it was. You sensed the rocking-horse grandeur of the “Important Event,’’ the strangely alluring mystery of “Curious Story’’ yet also the wistful autumnal repose of the famous “Träumerei’’ (“Dreaming’’). In Sherman’s hands the final miniature, titled “The Poet Speaks,’’ possessed a kind of lapidary eloquence, with notes set off by deep silences and closing chords that seem to glow quietly from within.


It was also an apt way to introduce Schumann’s “Dictherliebe’’ (“Poet’s Love’’), which followed in a performance by Sherman and tenor Frank Kelley. The two men are fresh from another Emmanuel Music collaboration earlier this month, and their account here was keenly alert to the subtleties and ironies of Schumann’s Heine settings, forged by the composer into a narrative of unreciprocated love. Kelley’s tenor is not the most polychrome of instruments and it can often take on a certain pressed quality. But at his best, as he was in this spellbinding performance, he transforms these limitations into an interpretive strength - a kind of clarion emotive directness - that becomes part of his vocal signature.

Sherman by turns ceded and reclaimed the spotlight gracefully, at one point taking audible pleasure in summoning Heine’s flutes and fiddles at the keyboard, or in lofting up the closing piano meditation that carries this cycle’s sharp stabs of emotion toward a place more distant and luminous. This was lieder performance as shared artistic endeavor. The crowd of listeners, which overflowed the Parish Hall at Emmanuel Church, made its appreciation known.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at