This completes Sherman's cycle of all the sonatas. I have this Volume 5 and Volume 4 so far, and have ordered the others; there is also a 10-CD boxed set. After reading his thoughtful and playful program notes here, I've also ordered his book, "Piano Pieces". There's an interview with him in the May/June 2002 issue of _Fanfare_ magazine that also repays multiple visits. Sherman is clearly a brilliant generalist, able to collect ideas from wherever they may be found, and use them in humble service of the music.
So, what does this set sound like? His performances are closely analytical, which is not surprising given that he studied with Eduard Steuermann (Schoenberg's advocate). He keeps the texture of the music lively and riveting: with careful control of voicing and timing he brings out all sorts of compositional details. That is, he's not content merely to breeze through the notes, but would rather show us Beethoven's creative genius at work.
This approach shows up especially in his rhythmic flexibility: the hands don't always have to be exactly together, and the tempo is a liquid...basically flowing forward but also taking little twists and turns around obstacles. And it's done deliberately, to bring out musical points, not just to get through passages that are difficult to play. That treatment of tempo is nothing new; it's a basic part of 18th and early 19th century keyboard technique, but too often forgotten today by players who focus on metric regularity (or the easy splice-ability in a recording, having all the takes firmly in tempo).
"Dynamics" are not merely a good control of loud and quiet, but of all the components of flow, and engagement of the listener's attention. It takes more skill to control a field of dozens of variables (including tempo) than it does to control merely three or four variables (the focus of some other players). And Sherman's technique is up to that challenge, that willingness to let things be irregular but still under enough control. Sherman also realizes that the music is play, and he brings out a whimsical delight in it, no matter how much it has also been "intellectualized." His playing sounds spontaneous and fresh, not cautious.
A terrific result is: Sherman makes the listener think about the music as if it were new and unfamiliar, even if the listener already "knows" these pieces from listening and playing.
Sherman himself puts it well in the booklet notes: "The inherent tension between order and disorder, anomaly and stasis, event and field, is at its most refined and researched in Beethoven, whether the consequences are bloody or evanescent. Such music cannot be mastered, only addressed--which conviction allows me to take leave of my senses, to try vainly, to give some inadequate testimony of my teacher's legacy, to wrestle in the great sandbox of child and heaven with the ultimate Sumo soldier-of-humanity, however many times I get flattened."
There is no shortage of other recordings of these pieces; plenty of other pianists can play the notes. Listeners who expect a slickly machined precision and regularity, or the thrill of a super-energetic drive with turbo thrusters, should look elsewhere. Listeners who want to "address" the music at the side of an enthusiastic guide should press the "Add to Shopping Cart" button now.
Speaking of Steuermann: when is his own marvelous recording of the Schoenberg piano pieces going to make it to CD?