Pianissimo: Memorable keyboard art by Russell Sherman and Marc-André Hamelin and chamber music by the Takács and Borromeo String Quartets trigger some personal reminiscences

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Lloyd Schwartz, 1988, by Robert Giard

Lloyd Schwartz, 1988, by Robert Giard

This season marked the 75th Anniversary of the Celebrity Series of Boston, founded by Aaron Richmond, whose daughter, Nancy Richmond Winsten, sponsors the piano events and is still a familiar attendee. I have a deep sense of nostalgia about the Celebrity Series. The very first concert I ever attended in Boston was with the Budapest String Quartet (my favorite quartet) in 1962. It was my first year of graduate school (I was a very young grad student) and I was living on a $1500 a year scholarship. I had neither time nor money for anything as frivolous as a chamber music concert. But I had to go. The Jordan Hall box office told me the performance was sold out… unless I was willing to take a cheap stage seat. So there I was, sitting a few feet away from the Budapest Quartet playing Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. It remains one of the greatest concerts I ever heard in my life.

The very first classical music events I was ever asked to write about were also Celebrity Series concerts. Ellen Pfeifer, the Boston Herald’s classical music critic, asked me to cover two Symphony Hall concerts while she was following the Boston Symphony Orchestra on its 1976 European tour. I was assigned to review soprano Beverly Sills and a piano recital by Arthur Rubinstein, which turned out to be his very last Boston appearance. I had no idea at the time that this would be the start of my professional career as a music critic. Starting with the Celebrity Series was starting at the top. I haven’t liked every Celebrity Series concert I’ve written about over the years, but I feel a deep gratitude to the Celebrity Series for all the ones I’ve loved. They’ve never left me at a loss for words.

One performer who didn’t know he had a major influence on my career as a critic is the Boston pianist and legend Russell Sherman, who concluded Emmanuel Music’s four-year Beethoven chamber series on March 30 with an extraordinary chamber concert that also celebrated Sherman’s 84th birthday. With two of the most phenomenally gifted younger Boston musicians, violinist Gabriela Diaz and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, Sherman played three of Beethoven’s most sublime chamber works, his magical last violin sonata, Opus 96 in G, the heroic A-major Sonata for Cello and Piano, Opus 69, and the great Archduke Trio. Sherman was like the eye of the hurricane, the still and private center, while these riveting, high-powered younger players were eloquently and uninhibitedly delivering Beethoven’s more vigorous public message.

Last September, as Sherman was preparing to leave his house for his New England Conservatory faculty recital at Jordan Hall, he fell and fractured his hip, disappointing numerous admirers who were already arriving for the concert. The Emmanuel Beethoven event was his first return to public life after his injury. Then on May 10, he was back at Jordan Hall for the same ambitious and rangy program he had planned for September. Sherman is quite frail and has to be helped to the piano. But his playing was far from frail, though he was capable of the utmost delicacy, which may be even harder than playing loud. I’ve never heard anyone play Schoenberg’s Three Pieces, Opus 11, more pianistically, with a greater sense of a mind in process, or more ravishingly—Sherman really undermines the opinion of anyone who claims that Schoenberg’s music is ugly.

Then he played another one of his specialties—Debussy’s three-movement musical travelogue, Estampes. After the exquisite gamelan-like Pagodes (pagodas) comes La soirée dans Granade (evening in Granada), a suggestive dance with tricky “Spanish” syncopations, almost as if part of the piano were an accompanying guitar. Sherman kept his listeners on the edge of their seats, hardly in them, breathless with the music’s melodic and rhythmic invention. Estampes closes with Jardins sous la pluie (gardens in the rain), another marvel of atmosphere almost literally awash with color.

But in 1977, when the Boston Herald had one of its periodic financial collapses, all us freelancers were unceremoniously terminated. It was my amazing good fortune that there was an opening for a classical music critic at the weekly Boston Phoenix. David Moran, the managing editor, an admirer of Sherman’s, invited three writers to review a private recital Sherman was giving at Moran’s house, in preparation for his first New York recital in many years. I was a huge fan of Sherman’s, and though I didn’t like the idea of a critical run-off, I wasn’t going to give up hearing Sherman play in an intimate setting. As fate would have it, I was the only critic to show up, so I got the job at the Phoenix by default. That memorable concert changed my life. As the full-time Phoenix critic, I had to take my reviewing more seriously; it was no longer just a hobby. And this would never have happened if I had not loved Sherman’s playing. One of the pieces he played that night was Soirée dans Granade, and it was thrilling to be mesmerized once again, so many years later, by Sherman’s rhythmic prestidigitation.

The first “half” of the Jordan Hall program ended with a luscious impressionistic rendition of Scriabin’s brief two-movement Sonata No. 4 (from 1903—same year as Estampes), that Sherman steered from tuneful prettiness, to ragtime, to an uncanny combination of density and speed.

The second half consisted of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Opus 28, played non-stop, as a single entity, all in one breath, as it were, in which these familiar miniatures each felt like a sudden, momentary epiphany, our entering not only a fresh new sound world, but a new mind, Sherman making something large scale out of smaller pieces—just as he did with the entire program. I was so enraptured, it was if I too were holding my breath. I didn’t even take notes. Sherman can be a very eloquent writer, and his program notes on the Preludes, following in the footsteps of the great French pianist Alfred Cortot, are a veritable prose poem. He calls number 12, for example, “A sinister, lacerating scherzo of defiance and doom. Premeditated: it takes no prisoners.” Here’s a link to his complete commentary: http://necmusic.edu/soloists/chopin-preludes).

There were two encores, a deeply thoughtful Liszt Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (with his fresh and profoundly musical approach to Liszt, Sherman is perhaps single-handedly responsible for contemporary audiences taking this composer best known for his flamboyance seriously), and one of the most calmly mysterious of Debussy’s preludes, the late Bruyères (heather)

One of the most unusual bits of programing for this Celebrity Series anniversary season featured Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who is now a Boston resident. His debut appearance with the Celebrity Series was actually a series of three recitals. In December, he appeared alone at Jordan Hall, playing his own mysterious and sinister Barcarolle, the fiendishly difficult Medtner “Night Wind” sonata (staggeringly well performed but still not quite convincing me of its musical merit), and a fascinatingly personal version of Schubert’s monumental and heartbreaking masterpiece, his B-flat Sonata, Opus Posthumous.

In April, Hamelin returned, but the venue was Symphony Hall, where he played Brahms’s large-scale early Sonata, No. 3, in F minor, and with Emmanuel Ax, the two-piano Sonata in F minor, an ambitious earlier version of one of Brahms’s greatest chamber pieces, his Piano Quintet. For all his gifts, Hamelin didn’t make me love the hard-to-love Piano Sonata, and for all their phenomenal coordination, and the rare chance to hear this version, Hamelin and Brahms never made me forget that the familiar Piano Quintet is the far more inspired piece—the way this music needs to sound.

Then on May 2, Hamelin was back in Jordan Hall, this time with British violinist Anthony Marwood and the Belarus/Israeli clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, who replaced the Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst when this concert was given in San Francisco only a few days before. Not only was this the most satisfying of Hamelin’s three appearances, it was one of the most exciting concerts of the entire classical music season—an exhilarating, and endlessly seductive concatenation of performers and material. “This is one of the best concerts I’ve ever heard!” a friend exclaimed rushing up to me as I was leaving the hall, “Didn’t you think so?” I did.

Marwood is a violinist with a warm singing or “speaking” tone, and a kind of plunging sense of rhythm. He seems to be diving into each phrase, whether slow or fast. In Stravinsky’s marvelous 1919 suite from L’Histoire du soldat, reducing the original ensemble to violin, clarinet, and piano, Marwood’s fiddling in the passage depicting the soldier’s attempt to defeat the Devil was astounding in its combination of wild energy and precise articulation (this victory-over-the-Devil movement also served as the concert’s encore).

Fiterstein has one of the smoothest clarinet sounds I’ve ever heard—silk or satin or velvet. Irresistibly seductive. But he never played beautifully merely for the sake of making a beautiful sound, because he could also get rough and squeal or cackle or bellow, as the occasion called for. Every note had a musical instinct behind it. In the slow movement of the gorgeous, almost louche Poulenc Sonata (for which jazz-legend Benny Goodman played the 1962 premiere), Fiterstein sounded like Edith Piaf wailing a throbbing cabaret song.

Of Hamelin’s three Celebrity concerts, this in some way appeared to be his most modest effort. He took no solo role. There were only duets—piano/violin, piano/clarinet—or trios. Yet he was always the central figure, setting the tone, supplying the structural thread, finding the underlying warmth or coolness or delicacy or strength in such varied works as Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie, with Fiterstein at his most suave, or the late, unsettling  Debussy Violin Sonata with Marwood.

The evening began with a rare performance of Schubert’s lively and engaging Rondo in B Minor played by Hamelin and Marwood with almost too much vigor and thrust—forsaking moments of possible Schubertian relaxation and expansion for sheer energy, anticipating Bartók’s folk dances. Not everyone I spoke to during intermission thought it worked. I did.

The program was otherwise devoted to 20th-century treasures. And it ended with a breathtaking performance, witty and colorful, folk-like and jazz-like, and absolutely unstoppable, of Bartók’s Contrasts, the trio he composed for his fellow Hungarian Joseph Szigeti (in my book, and probably Bartók’s, too, the 20th-century’s greatest violinist) and Benny Goodman. Szigeti and Goodman were originally joined by Hungarian pianist Egon Petri in 1939 at Carnegie Hall for the premiere of a two-movement version of this piece called Rhapsody. Bartók soon added a middle movement, renamed the work Contrasts, with he himself at the keyboard joining Szigeti and Goodman back at Carnegie Hall. On February 4, 1941, the Celebrity Series brought these celebrated players to Boston, on a program that included not only Contrasts, but also the two Debussy works on Hamlin’s program.

Hearing Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat at Jordan Hall gave me another twinge of nostalgia. In 1972, I played the part of the Soldier in a fascinating performance with the Handel and Haydn Society, brilliantly led by the late Thomas Dunne (H&H wasn’t just an early-music group under Dunne). L’Histoire began as a dance and theater piece. This new version had an exciting text by the avant-garde poet and playwright Kenward Elmslie, and original choreography by Boston Ballet choreographer and principal dancer (and the founder of his own Boston Repertory Ballet) Sam Kurkjian, who was the Soldier’s dance counterpart. Sam died last November. He was an inspired artist, and a dear soul. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like and admire him. Working with him was an unforgettable experience, and a privilege.

Another unusual Celebrity Series combination of events was a two-part program of the Takács Quartet playing all six of Bartók’s string quartets (the odd numbers in March, the even numbers in April). These were beautiful concerts. The Takács plays with a rare, full-hearted warmth, strength and lyricism without preciousness. They capture Bartók’s movement from late Romanticism (1909) to his unique brand of Modernism (1939).

There were actually three Bartók quartet cycles in Boston this season: the Takács, one by the Chiara Quartet at Harvard, which actually overlapped with the Takács, and a free concert at Jordan Hall by the NEC Ensemble-in-Residence, the Borromeo String Quartet. The most unusual nature of this event was that the Borromeos played all six quartets in chronological order, in one evening, starting at 7:00 and ending sometime after 10:00 (two intermissions). They’ve evidently done this before, in addition to their remarkable Bartók series at the Gardner Museum in 2009.

If the Takács makes it clear how all six quartets were written by the same composer, the Borromeos make them sound almost like a single work, almost a wordless opera, in six parts: the first two in three movements each; the third in, depending how you count them, either a single movement or three continuous movements and a coda; then the two daring quartets in five movements each; and the final quartet in four, each of the varied movement beginning with a similar melancholy introduction (the last movement consisting of just the introduction). Of course, this isn’t exactly what the Borromeos were trying to prove. But the six quartets felt thoroughly unified. The players read their scores not from individual parts but from laptops that show the entire score, so each player knows exactly what the others are doing at every moment. You can hear this, the subtle but deliberate slipping into and out of prominence.

Above all, the Borromeos plays these quartets with a kind of nervy, searching, controlled urgency that is absolutely gripping. They don’t underestimate the strangeness of these works, but don’t exaggerate that strangeness either. There’s always a strong rhythmic underpinning from which the Hungarian tunes and dances emerge in the most natural way. The notorious dissonant folk tune in the last movement of the fifth quartet sounded not as if it had just arrived from another planet, but as if it were part of the essential texture, however startling. The important pizzicato passages range from a demented serenade (the entire fourth movement of the fourth quartet, with the strings not only plucked but snapped so vigorously the players had to re-tune before the fifth movement), to the awakening shivers in the fifth quartet’s Andante, to the sound of out and out laughter (ha-ha-ha, tee-hee-hee, hee-haw) in the Burletta third movement of the last quartet. There’s always a particular sensitivity to Bartók’s musical contrasts, so something almost hilarious could turn suddenly soulful.

Despite the stupefying physical demands on the players, they never flagged. And neither did the lucky listeners. The long evening just raced by.

PS. Though the quartet concert was the major part of the action, it wasn’t the only part. I was sorry to miss a lecture demonstration that afternoon at which first violinist Nicholas Kitchen talked about, and the quartet performed, rejected passages that Kitchen had discovered at the Bartók Archive in Budapest—some apparently radically different—that Bartók later changed or cut, including a “vigorous and virtuoso Finale” for the last quartet. Some of Kitchen’s notes appeared in the program booklet.

About the author

Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

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