7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
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.
11 of 17 people found the following review helpful
J Scott Morrison
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
I had never even heard of Craig Sheppard until I heard a sample of a recording from his complete traversal of the Beethoven sonatas, captured live in a series of recitals in Seattle where Sheppard is a professor at the University of Washington. I was bowled over by it and even more so after I got the whole set. (See my review of that set here: Beethoven: A Journey ) I put Sheppard on my list of pianists to watch for, either in recital anywhere near where I'm located or of new releases. Well, this two-CD set of the Bach Partitas is just out and it is a pure joy. In fact, on the basis of this and the Beethoven set I have decided to automatically obtain whatever Sheppard chooses to record. There are only a few pianists who make that list.
These two CDs, available for the price of one, contain all six of Bach's keyboard partitas which comprise part I of his Klavierübung. Even though he was 46 when they were printed, they were the first of his works to be published. He published them himself with this inscription, "Keyboard practice consisting of preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, gigues, menuets and other galanteries, composed for music lovers to refresh their spirits." I must say this recording has done that for me; in fact, I had trouble starting this review because I kept going back and listening some more. It is not that I'm not familiar with the partitas -- I've played much of this music myself -- but Sheppard way with the music gave such delight that I didn't want it to stop. His manner is a genial combination of dancing rhythms, impeccable articulation (and, remember, these are live performances), great variety of touch, pulse and dynamics as well as, best of all, the intelligence, deep musicality and technique to pull this off and make it seem easy.
CD 1 contains, in this order, Partitas 3, 2 & 6; CD 2 has Partitas 5, 1 & 4. I'm not sure why this order was chosen. No matter. I found myself repeating various movements as well as picking and choosing individual movements so the order didn't much matter to me. These works were not meant by Bach to be played in any particular order, or all at once, although there are thematic cross references in the individual partitas.
Sheppard seems able to play in a manner that is somewhere between the ultra-refined style used in Bach by, say, Schiff or Perahia, and the easy, insouciant manner of Angela Hewitt. Certainly he does not use the dramatic staccato manner of Glenn Gould. He has some of the qualities of all these artists and yet makes his own statement, one I find deeply satisfying. There is a sweet musing, almost exalted, coupled with rhythmic aliveness in his playing that no one else brings to these works. The sound of his own Hamburg Steinway is one factor; it is a marvelous instrument. One has the sense that Sheppard, although playing before an audience in Seattle's Meany Auditorium, is so absorbed in the music that he is unconscious of it, and his absorption is coupled with incredible concentration, all at the service of his vision of the music. (By the way, one is not aware that this is a live recording from the sound except for brief applause at the conclusion of each Partita.)
A few highlights: I love the Toccata from the 6th Partita immoderately. It is often played either solemnly or bombastically. Sheppard plays it as an exalted improvisation with little adjustments of tempo and touch that one would expect in such a performance. In Sheppard's performance the fugal latter portion sounds made up on the spot. The concluding Capriccio of the 2nd Partita does indeed sound capricious and Sheppard emphasizes the quirky harmonic twists deliciously. The fugal Gigue of No. 6 sounds the most like Gould of anything here; this is appropriate because the main subject begs to be played staccato. Sheppard plays it at a fast pace and yet articulation is pristine -- a marvelous bravado performance of the movement that concludes the last and most grandiose of the partitas.
I had to restrain myself from getting out of my chair and dancing to the Corrente from the 3rd Partita or marching to the Scherzo of the same work (even though it's in triple time!). The Praeambulum of No. 5 flows like mountain stream -- limpid, refreshing, alive. One of my favorite of all the partita movements is the Tempo di minuetto of No. 5 with its hemiolas that Bach uses to instruct and amuse. Sheppard plays it in a delicate slightly detaché style and manages to surprise us with the metric changes every darn time. This is real musicianship!
I could go on, but I'll stop with my high praise for all of the gigues from the individual partitas. I think it is here that we hear all of Sheppard's virtues undiluted. There is no pecking or stabbing at the piano as one sometimes hears, but there is also no deadening legato. Somehow he manages to keep the rhythms and phrasing alive with minute adjustments of touch and pulse. Amazing!
This set belongs in the collection of anyone who loves these pieces, no matter what other versions they already have.
A most urgent recommendation.
[Note to self: Find and buy Sheppard's recordings of the Goldbergs, the Diabellis and his Scarlatti CD.]