By Peter Halstead

Photo by Brian Lambert

The great iconoclast and performer Russell Sherman, my teacher, died on September 30th.

As the Boston Musical Intelligencer reminisced recently, Sherman’s arrival in Boston, along with the critic Michael Steinberg’s, changed the zeitgeist of the musical community there forever. No one afterwards thought of music in the same way. A rest at the beginning of a piano piece morphed over the course of the work into immense silence: the Butterfly Effect. Out of that silence, music sprang autochthonously.

When Sherman played Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata in concert at Jordan Hall, all the passion of the famous Richter CD was there, but there was something else. Not just speed, power, and drama.

Beethoven’s original manuscript had been on display at the Conservatory that week, and Sherman had noticed that the slur marks over the phrases had been standardized by later editors, while, in the manuscript, each repetition of the theme had a different grouping of notes.

So Sherman had refingered the sonata the night before he played it. It’s one thing to memorize a work. But to change the fingerings, which are embedded firmly in motor memory, reorders the synapses. It should take a month. But the next day the cliché of the famous opening notes became instead an anchor for its following variations; new relations became apparent between the theme and other phrases. A routine sonata had been reborn. Meaning came from the push and pull, the dichotomies, the tensions, between harmonies. Themes were like characters in a novel, with all the dapple, bezel, and shadow of a human being.

When Sherman played Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, again in Jordan Hall, he found ways to weave the twelve pieces together, although they are completely different. Of course he hadn’t asked that the concert be recorded. Sherman hated recordings. Music changed daily; recordings froze their yesterdays.

While we were recording the Liszt Etudes in a studio we had built for the purpose outside New York City (an early warning sign of technophilia), Sherman asked for headphones so he could hear what we were recording. Of course, the feed came a split second after he played it, so he couldn’t change the music to fit the recording, and ended up altering everything he played a second afterwards, to make a kind of stuttering sound. It showed his subversive attitude towards technology: recording was the enemy of spontaneity. Sherman not only recomposed music; he recomposed the recompositions. A piece changed every time he played it. He would deny the dicta he had laid down in previous years, and around which his students shaped their playing.

I mentioned that he had said several years before that music was “fastidious contemplation.”

“No, I don’t think it is,” he said. Sherman as Buddha.

In my twenties, I had a few teachers who changed my life. Ted Tayler taught a seminar on Shakespeare at Columbia, where I learned the answer to “What do you get with a Bic pen?” The answer: identity. Coriolanus got his name from conquering the town of Coriolan. When he loses his name and thus his reputation, he realizes how words become us, how we become our words.

William York Tindall taught us the linguistics of Joyce in his home on the Hudson River during the student riots of 1968.

George Steiner changed my attitude towards poetry.

I was the token student on a committee to reshape Columbia, along with eminent scholars like Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and Daniel Bell. Brown was more successful in allowing students to choose their majors and their courses, but at Columbia I was convinced that musicians needed poetry and philosophy in order to infuse music with wider meaning. With correspondences. With ghosts.

More than anyone, it was Sherman who demonstrated to me how words could reshape music, how what you were thinking influenced the way a piece sounded. He believed that you could make a “scoop,” a glissando, between notes an octave apart, not by playing the notes in between, but just by thinking of the “lift” between the two notes. A good example of this is the space between the first melody note of Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus Posthumous, in C# minor, and the note an octave above it. By sheer will, (and maybe a small rubato), you can convey that leap, the connection between the two notes.

It was this piece that saved the lives of two pianists in the Warsaw ghetto: Natalia Karp played it for Amon Göth (acted by Rafe Fiennes in Schindler’s List), and Wladyslaw Szpilman played it for Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (dramatized in Polanski’s The Pianist). In both cases, the soldiers helped the pianists survive afterwards.

This was music as life or death. Every note you played was a shout or a whisper for rebirth.

Sherman said he’d teach me if I practiced just one note for two weeks. When I returned to his house in Lexington, I had to play that one note profoundly but introspectively; to the bottom of the keybed but also floating; seriously but ironically. Like Szpilman or Karp, I’d only get one chance. That note had to save my life

And it did. It changed the way I lived.

Sherman suggested to me that you needed to understand Schönberg before you played Mozart, because you had to understand, as Mozart, he felt, had, the limitless future into which music would expand.

Sherman had recorded Schönberg pieces for Deutsche Grammophon. Steuermann, Sherman’s teacher, had studied with Schönberg, whose piano concerto he premiered. Steuermann had taught Brendel, Menahem Pressler, Adorno, and Gunther Schuller, who had brought Sherman to head the piano faculty of NEC.

Steuermann had also studied with Busoni, who had studied with Reinecke, who had studied with Liszt, who had studied with Czerny, who had studied with Beethoven. There is an oral tradition of playing piano which has never been written down. I don’t know if it matters if you have been taught indirectly by Beethoven or Liszt. But it helps to think so.

Sherman was friends with Rudolf Kolisch, who was Schönberg’s brother-in-law, and who taught violin at the Conservatory. The Kolisch Quartet had commissioned works from Bartók, Berg, Webern, and Schönberg. So the Conservatory was a hotbed of the Second Viennese School, of Schönberg, Berg, Weberg, and Wolpe (I later studied in New York with Irma Wolpe, as did Garrick Ohlsson and the late Peter Serkin). Everything we all played was descended from Schönberg, from twelve-tone serialism, as characters in Goethe’s novel, Elective Affinities, moved like atoms between order and chaos, between reason and passion.

Sherman introduced me to Adorno’s music theory, and to Schenker diagrams, which eliminated the decorative elements of Beethoven to highlight the structural underpinnings.

Sherman believed, as the poet James Merrill said, that “form’s what affirms.” Scales reflected the notes around them, so there was no point in learning a scale by itself until it came with the context which it needed to contain.

He believed that notes didn’t have to be pretty: the entire gamut of human emotions was necessary to convey modern music as it moved away from pre-Raphaelite sentiments. He believed in surprising himself to keep a piece fresh.

When he was playing the second movement of the “Appassionata” sonata at the Met Museum in New York City, his accents and voices, the very fabric of the momentum, started to sidestep the notes, and he was lost. He had to begin the movement again. The Juilliard students in the audience were horrified. But it was an ideal Shermanesque moment, a model of how a piece should be improvisatory, composed on the spot, looking for windows and cracks, not just doors.

The first thing I did when I moved to Boston around 1968 was buy my first piano, a 1928 Steinway B from Paul Murphy at Steinert’s. The next thing I did was get my first piano teacher, Clara Slater, from the New England Conservatory of Music. After a year of learning how phrasing invigorated Mozart sonatas, Clara suggested I study with her teacher, Russell Sherman.

After I played some of the Saint-Saëns G Minor Piano Concerto for the NEC piano faculty on my new piano, Sherman decided to record the Well-Tempered Clavier in my apartment. At that time, my primitive contribution to his immortality was a Tandberg reel-to-reel tape recorder and two Sony condenser mics, which cost around $100 each.

After advertising the virtues of the excitingly bare room, I had destroyed its acoustics by carpeting it in purple shag. My friends called it “the world of bad taste.” It had other attributes as well. The carpet hid the wooden bounce of the piano off the old oak floorboards, turning the sound shaggy. As Sherman phrased it diplomatically, “Peter, I had thought your piano was oceanic; but it was only streamlined.” We ended up recording only six preludes and fugues. But they changed the way I thought of Bach. They made him Romantic, novelistic.

The piano Cathy and I bought after that was our first Steinway D, in 1979. We had the Teflon bushings removed by Ed Court, the head of quality control at Steinway, and years of fiddling by Ed and Ron Conor turned it into an amazingly supple instrument, which we used to record Sherman’s Beethoven, Liszt, Debussy, and Schubert over the next decade. We also recorded my six albums for Albany Records, David Deveau, and Chris O’Riley (both of whom studied with Sherman the same time I did). Along with Don Johnson of Pro Arte Records, we hired producers worthy of Sherman: Tom Frost, Judith Sherman, Wolf Erichson, Tony Faulkner. From them I learned the arcana of recording: where to put what microphones, how sound reflects off different materials, what shape rooms make dynamic or flabby recordings.

It wasn’t just the room; it was everything together. I went with Sherman to choose a piano from the Berlin Philharmonic to replace the piano in the Hall of the Artists in Prague, where we were recording the Beethoven concerti with the Czech Philharmonic under the conductor Vaclav Neumann. The new piano sounded terrible, and we realized it was the hall, not the piano. But then I realized it wasn’t the hall; it was the location of the mics. I got in touch with Supraphon, and then with Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, which called the Kremlin. The Kremlin called the engineer, who moved the mics. The process took a week. No one had ever moved the microphones before. So the last three concerti on that recording sound much better than the first two. Position matters as well: as Horowitz knew, when you move an untuned piano an inch on a stage, suddenly it’s tuned.

I later edited what became Sherman’s book, Piano Pieces. I tried as well to take more relatable photos for some of our album covers.

We built our own studio in Bedford because we were unhappy with the confined sound of many recording studios. For instance, I gave Wolf Erichson (who had recorded Gustav Leonhardt, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, Frans Brüggen, and Heinz Holliger, and who sadly died in 2019) two of my B & K 4006s and asked him to make a resonant album in the Wellesley Chapel. He felt the echoes were unmanageable, so he put the mics close to the strings and cut the room out of the recording. The Liszt Sonata thus only sounds the way Sherman played it when you add a resonant room back in. Our room in Colorado fits the bill perfectly; so long as you have that room, the piano sounds demonic, the way we had imagined it.

A producer had thought he could record two albums in a single time slot, but the studio owner found out and demanded a double payment. The producer was too embarrassed to admit defeat for several months, but finally I rescued the albums, and went to an institute where the engineer was recuperating to get him to explain his handwriting. To this day, I don’t know if we made thousands of records from a master tape or from a dub. No one could tell.

I like to think I have gained still undiscovered countries from knowing Sherman: for instance, the way I see Chopin’s Barcarolle is eddies loosely swirling in a canal, taking the direction of the boat on constant detours, like the broken masts of Shackleton’s ship the Endurance in Frank Hurley’s photos of it trapped in the ice: an ectoplasm of a Venetian vaporetti. A ghost frigate. The way reflections enlarge an image without changing it, I like to think the collapsed spars and fallen jibs summon up some Sherman to my wounded gondola.

David Deveau said to me one day after I had played the Rachmaninoff Prelude in G# Minor: “You’re the most Sherman of us all.” I don’t know what I did, but it’s a good epitaph for all of us.