In November 1945, a 15-year-old pianist gave his debut recital in New York’s Town Hall. Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata was on the program. A New York Times critic praised the teenager, tellingly, for his “individuality and a truer understanding of the intentions of the composers than is usual in a pianist so young.”
Some 70 years later, or more precisely on Wednesday night, the same pianist walked with assistance onto the stage of Jordan Hall. Yet when he sat down before his instrument and began to play, the years quickly receded.
It was Russell Sherman’s 85th birthday and the distinguished Boston pianist celebrated the occasion with a full all-Beethoven recital featuring, in addition to the “Appassionata” once more, Beethoven’s magisterial Sonata in E (Op. 109), as well as the composer’s “Eroica” Variations. It was, all told, a triumphant night, one that displayed Sherman’s exploratory musical intelligence and poetic gift undimmed. One could say this pianist’s music-making has an ageless quality, if not for the fact that it also reflects insights accumulated over many decades of pondering, as he once put it, “what it means to sit in front of a piano and dream, fret, rage, and give thanks.”
Who knows how the “Appassionata” sounded back then, but Wednesday’s account was especially distinctive in the control and fullness of its sound world. The slow movement was marked by a tenderness without indulgence, and a kind of through-line of musical perspicacity. The “Eroica” Variations had wit and pliancy in equal measure.
Sherman made the unusual choice of opening the night with the late sonata, the kind of work rarely tapped as a curtain-raiser, but here effective for that very reason among many others. Tempos were flexible, the music’s surface sheen often happily disturbed with telling details Sherman chose to emphasize.
Gravity tips this sonata toward the set of sublime variations that comprise its final movement, which Sherman took up at a relatively brisk pace, presenting the songful opening theme as a kind of walking meditation. The variations themselves carry us far afield from this peaceful opening. But after giving each its vertiginous due, when Sherman returned to the initial theme, it spoke with a quiet simplicity at once humane and true, and all the more articulate for being hard-won.
At the end of the night, the large crowd rose to deliver an extended ovation, somewhere in the middle of which was heard, emanating from the audience, the distinctive strains of another tune, less rarefied if hardly less fitting: “Happy Birthday.”
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.