I got a hankering to hear both a new LvB piano concerto cycle and a bunch of new Emperor recordings, so I started snooping, and what did I find? A new-ish release of a “younger” Russell Sherman playing the Big Five! Now, I’ve known about his newer live recording of the concertos with the mighty Monadnock Festival Orchestra under James Bolle on GM Recordings for a while, and I’ve entertained thoughts of buying it, but when I saw the Vanguard reissue of the early-80s Pro Arte recordings of the same works with Vaclav Neumann and the great Czech Philharmonic for a whopping $16, I decided to act. To say that I’m glad that I did is a major understatement: this is one of the finest Beethoven piano concerto cycles I’ve heard. In fact, I can’t really think of one that I prefer by a great margin. Not even the Schnabel and first Kempff cycles blow this one away. It’s quite simply a magnificent cycle.

First and foremost one must consider Sherman’s pianism. Yes, he’s heavy-handed and idiosyncratic to the point of outright eccentricity sometimes, and he plays with tempi all the time, but he makes it work. He breathes new life into the pieces, making the listener reconsider everything anew. His take on the cadenzas, for instance, involve all manner of tweaks, yet everything sounds almost as though invented on the spot. More important than that is the overall freshness he brings to the works. The C major concerto jumps right out of the speakers with a vitality and drive that many live recordings can’t match. And things are kept light and youthful, while still allowing for some more introspective playing. Ditto the Second. The Third is darker, stormier, and more intense, and boasts an extremely slow, lovely, and shaded slow movement that I think people will either love or hate. The fourth concerto is probably the comparative weak link in the set, but that just means it is merely wonderful. Lyrical where required, more energetic when appropriate, and perhaps just a little to showy, Sherman nonetheless delivers. And his Emperor? Well, let’s just say it’s better than average. More detail will be forthcoming on this one later.

I mentioned Sherman’s proclivity to tempo tinker before, and sure enough he does. The overall timings of all five concertos are a bit on the long side, but the music making never sounds slow or labored or contrived. It all flows along wonderfully from start to finish. How he (and the conductor and band) manages it is something I cannot adequately explain.

And speaking of the conductor and band: both acquit themselves quite nicely, thank you very much. Neumann shows that he’s no journeyman only conductor; he knows and understands the music, and he sympathetically supports the soloist. The Czech Philharmonic sound and play splendidly, with wonderful strings, and some distinctive and compelling wind playing, as one generally expects from this band from the time. In short, Sherman gets superb backing from artists of a very high caliber indeed.

To sound, well, let’s just say that it doesn’t sound like 1984. The sound isn’t glassy or hard; it’s detailed, reasonably warm, and let’s everything shine through. It’s a bit bass light at times, giving the left channel a slight apparent boost. There’s some spotlighting, though I’ve heard more exaggerated spotlighting.

So, a truly individual take on these warhorses from high caliber artists in excellent sound at a bargain basement price. What’s not to like? If you really need more enticement, the set also includes Sherman playing the Op 119 Bagatelles, and they are predictably superb. Though I’ve switched my listening focus to new music, it’s sets like this one that remind me that even the most recorded music can sound fresh and alive if played right. Of course, Sherman’s very interventionist approach will not appeal to everyone, so those who like nothing but straight-man artistry ought not to buy this, but more adventurous souls may want to consider it.

Now what can best this during the year? Not even Sinae Lee’s superb Szymanowski cycle or Michel Block’s recording of Schumann’s Novelleten do, though they more or less match it. Ah well, if I get one or two more discs or sets at this level, I’ll be happy indeed.