Opening pitch

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 1, 2008

I think my very first encounter with pianist Russell Sherman — well over 30 years ago — was hearing him play all of Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Études (Études d’exécution transcendante). Few pianists attempt more than one on a program. To celebrate the release of a Transcendental DVD he made in 2004 (he’d already recorded the entire set twice), the 78-year-old master pianist gave a remarkable free concert at Jordan Hall last Thursday to a near-capacity crowd. The études are still a wild ride (the title of No. 8 is Wilde Jagd — “wild hunt”), and if some of the wilder ones now convey a certain effort that isn’t on his recordings, the quieter, more thoughtful, more exploratory pieces have deepened.

I rarely find Liszt moving, but the second Sonetto del Petrarca (Petrarch’s Sonnet No. 104), with which Sherman began the concert, offered a world of grave and sublime contemplation, and the longer, more searching études — Paysage (No. 3, a pastoral landscape), Ricordanza (No. 9, “Remembrance”), Harmonies du soir (No. 11, “Evening Harmonies”) — were heartbreaking in their spiritual beauty, an intention Sherman has always been quite explicit about. His Liszt isn’t just sound and technical fury but a living through of complex experiences. Ricordanza became a scenario of multiple converging memories. The mysterious arpeggios and rising lines of Harmonies du soir suggested bubbles trying to escape the pull of the earth — and succeeding (Sherman once called this piece “a chant of praise to harmony itself”). Equally spellbinding was his powerful, windswept Allegro agitato molto (No. 10), which despite its abstract title had, like everything Sherman plays, its own compelling underlying narrative launched from the extremes of the keyboard.

In his one encore, Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este (inspired by the fountains at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, near Rome), Sherman’s famously glistening high notes also had a magical variety of color and texture. He introduced it as a piece about “the healing power of the waters,” and for some eight minutes I felt I was in the presence of a profound benediction.

The Bostonians Opera & Concert Ensemble, directed by Richard Conrad, ended its summer “Art of Song” series at MIT’s Killian Hall with a program of Kurt Weill’s music for Broadway. After the rise of Hitler forced Weill out of Germany, Weill had an important if commercially spotty American career — several hit shows and some ambitious flops, none of which gets produced very often.

One highlight of Conrad’s tenure with the Boston Academy of Music was a revival, in 2000, of Weill’s daring 1941 musical about psychoanalysis, Lady in the Dark, with an unforgettable star turn by mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler as Liza Elliott, a fashion editor who can’t make up her mind (especially about which of her suitors to marry), so she goes into therapy and has a series of showstopping surrealistic dream sequences. At MIT, Ziegler reprised her sophisticated, nuanced “One Life To Live,” the poignant “My Ship,” and an all-stops-pulled-out “Saga of Jenny” — the lady who, in Ira Gershwin’s witty lyric, was far too decisive (“Jenny made her mind up when she was 12/That into foreign languages she would, delve;/But at 17 to Vassar it was quite a blow/That in 27 languages she couldn’t say no”).

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