Not everyone can upstage the most formidably famous composer in the Western canon, but not everyone is Russell Sherman. On Sunday, for the final concert of Emmanuel Music’s four-year-long survey of Beethoven’s chamber music, the pianist made his first appearance since breaking his hip last September, and his return became the concert’s cynosure. Sherman also turned 84 last week; that, too, was acknowledged, with a “Happy Birthday” serenade from the audience (which included more than a few fellow pianists) and cupcakes at intermission.
Sherman was joined by violinist Gabriela Diaz and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, two of the city’s most valuable players. Diaz and Popper-Keizer — whose versatility encompasses no small amount of new-music experience — know how to make even the most radical score sound elegant and musical; Sherman has always had a penchant for making the most hidebound repertoire sound freshly radical.
The G-major Violin Sonata (Op. 96), exceptionally lyrical Beethoven, nevertheless retains a capacity for surprise. The performance, in a way, exaggerated both, simultaneously slow and skittish. Sherman seemed to take time to find his physical rhythm; there were places where Diaz would briefly push forward but then defer to Sherman’s contingent rubato. But when the two were in synch, shrewd details punctuated the easygoing narrative: little, coy pauses around the opening trills, the scherzo’s trio turned into a sweet-tempered ländler, slowing phrases in the finale stretched into wry meditations.
Popper-Keizer poured on warm tone in the A-major Cello Sonata (Op. 69), which puts the cello in the foreground to an innovative degree. It complemented Sherman’s translucent touch — and rimshot accents. (The Scherzo was an especially lively negotiation, both players seeing how far they could rock the boat before the rhythms slipped overboard.) In the final movement, the pair’s alternate understatement and volubility combined to create, again and again, an unassuming suddenness.
In the “Archduke” Trio (Op. 97), Diaz’s long bows and Popper-Keizer’s rounded depth formed counterpoint to Sherman’s bell-like, gauzy sound; the strings’ rhythmic drive and richness balanced the piano’s lilt, rubato, and sudden stings of power. But the players shared an investigative approach to one of Beethoven’s most compulsively unexpected scores. Instead of positing a “definitive” interpretation, the performance — the entire concert, really — was probing, in the moment, every note considered and reconsidered as it passed. It paid tribute to both Beethoven and Sherman: treating the music not as a summation or a historical artifact, but as a perennial laboratory.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.