When Seattle professor Craig Sheppard recorded this set of Bach's Six Partitas for Keyboard in 2006 -- all played in concert -- and released it in USA, it almost immediately set off a tidal wave of adulation from Fanfare magazine and other critics that had never heard of him. How could a player more than 50 years old that had been playing Bach all his life, people would ask, just now come to us?
Sheppard, age 62, is hardly a neophyte, having played Bach a quarter-century and also having recorded the Beethoven 32 Sonatas for Piano under similar circumstances. He attended both the Curtis Institute and Juilliard and won silver medal at the 1972 Leeds International Pianoforte Competition in England. Certain critics called his work a watershed for the time. They didn't say why, a question I was left to find out for myself, in part because, oddly, no imprint was made in Europe. Neither the database of BBC Music Magazine nor Gramophone include a review of Sheppard's recording of the partitas. This is odd since Sheppard made most of his early reputation in Europe and, principally, England.
Sheppard's musicmaking hits you in the face the minute you play anything from this package. His handiwork is magnificent, especially for one off concert recordings. He makes nary a slip, although an occasional clunking pedal caught betrays perfection in the technical package. Still, there's no question the playing is outstanding, certainly on a par with other famous Bach specialists of our time.
Whether he is their equal artistically is another question. The pianist to whom I would most readily compare Sheppard is the Brazillian Bach specialist João Carlos Martins, who was once called the greatest Bach pianist after Glenn Gould. Martins, who recorded a lot of Bach in the 1990s then disappeared from the scene, was expert at fingering, speed and prestidigitation. He had lightning fingers and reflexes with monstrous technique an outcome of this physical ability. However, no one ever accused him of fabulous artistry. He played Bach wonderfully but the result was not wonderful Bach. It was, instead, wonderfully played Bach notes.
Sheppard is better than that but his unsubtle way doesn't explore every mineable emotion and nuance of the six partitas. Sheppard is an extrovert, a master of the big moment, of which there are many in these scores. Rarely, such as in the Sarabande of the magisterial Partita No. 6, does he show an inclination toward tenderness and introversion. Yet opportunities for this, to help show the inner workings of Bach's kaleidoscopic mind and heart, are episodic throughout the half-dozen works. I don't believe that's an aspect of performance Sheppard considered.
Others have, of course. Angela Hewitt, the Canadian darling of the Brits who has recorded much of Bach's keyboard output, spends far more time on this aspect of performance in her recording of the partitas. Where she fails is to use the same hammer that made Sheppard famous, instead pushing ahead with a mealy-mouthed technique that lacks personality.
Others have tried to merge artistry and fabulous finger and pedal work. Most notable are recordings by Gould Bach: Partitas BWV 825-830; Preludes and Fugues, Peraiha Bach: Partitas No. 1, 5 & 6 and Bach: Partitas Nos. 2-4, and Andras Schiff on piano Bach: 6 Partitas BWV 825-830 with Trevor Pinnock's wonderful set being the modern day benchmark for harpsichord Bach: Six Partitas, BWV 825-830 (Edition Bachakademie Vol 115) /Pinnock (harpsichord). Each of these recordings brings something to the music Sheppard misses, Pinnock more than the others, given the abilities to change sound texture with a harpsichord that don't exist on the modern grand piano.
Sheppard's exposition has some appeal but I wouldn't give away my favorites. Those include Dubravka Tomsic on Partita 1 Bach: Italian Concerto; Partita BWV 825; Toccata BWV 912, Roselyn Tureck's St. Petersburg concert recording of Partita 2 Rosalyn Tureck Live in St. Petersburg, Kristina Svanberg's Swedish Society recording of Partita 3 J.S. Bach: Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827; Six Little Preludes BWV 933-938; Fantasy and Fugue in C minor BWV 906; Chromatic Fantasy, Gould's recording of Partita 4, Schiff's earliest recording of Partita 5 Andás Schiff Plays Bach, and Elena Kuschnerova's magnificent recording of the Partita 6 Elena Kuschnerova
Sheppard's set, in good sound, comes with the excitement of a concert recording, but I don't think he transmits the wondrous beauty, intellectual rigor and humanity the very best performers find in this music.