By David Weininger,
Globe Correspondent | January 29, 2008
Russell Sherman, piano Russell Sherman plays the English Suites in three parts. (Joanne rathe/globe staff/file 2000)
John Cage once wrote that giving up Beethoven would be far easier than giving up Bach, since Bach's music exemplifies stability and regularity, without which most of us would find it exceedingly difficult to get on in our lives.
That Bach's music stands for order is an idea that informs our expectation of how his music should sound in performance: clear, symmetrically phrased, and with near-metronomic consistency, showing the listener how the music's contrapuntal strands interact and lead inexorably from first note to last.
On Saturday at Emmanuel Church, it took Russell Sherman only a few bars to upend completely this established template. The concert was the first of three in which Sherman will play all six of Bach's English Suites. Here he played the Second and Fifth Suites, and from the opening of the Second Suite's Prelude, it was clear that he had something different in mind. The music poured out in a headlong torrent of notes, with lines blurring one into another and rapid shifts in tone color.
In an era that prizes Glenn Gould's X-ray transparency in this music, Sherman's vision was decidedly counterculture. Motifs were pulled apart; unfamiliar melodies bubbled to the surface as familiar harmonic landmarks receded into the background. In the Allemandes of both suites Sherman's tempos were so unmoored from a basic pulse that the music began to sound improvisatory. Movements that one expected to sound similar - such as the two Bourrées in the Second Suite - were instead given radically different approaches.
Sherman is one of music's great iconoclasts, so his unconventional approach was, in a way, unsurprising. What was startling was how effective his conception was. Things that might have sounded willful or eccentric in lesser hands were utterly hypnotic. The two Sarabandes - slow, courtly dances - bore an emotional charge I have rarely encountered, even in the most distinguished Bach playing.
The effect of both performances was intoxicating and a little unsettling. For Sherman, Bach offers not the comfort of perfect order but the exhilarations and perils of radical freedom. It was the kind of playing that can alter one's basic view of how a composer should sound; at the same time, it was hard to suppress a nagging sense that music's great logician seemed to have come a little undone.
In each of these all-Bach concerts, Emmanuel Music is including one of the sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard, as well as Busoni arrangements of chorale preludes. Violist Mary Ruth (UV) Ray and pianist Minsoo Sohn played the Sonata in G Minor on Saturday. Ray had trouble being heard for much of the performance, though in the slow movement she showed a warm and graciously lyrical tone. Sohn's playing was deeply impressive, especially in Busoni's arrangement of "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland," which seemed to contain unfathomable depths of sound.