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Seen and Heard International Concert Review



Bach, Debussy, Franck, Musorgsky: Sergey Schepkin (piano) Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland, Oregon, 22.1.2006 (BJ)


There are the acknowledged lions of the keyboard, who roar mightily to the tune of several thousand notes a minute. And there is a different breed – not lambs, perhaps, but what you might call the professors of the keyboard - who prefer analysis to tub-thumping and cool introspection to letting all the emotions run riot. But just as, in a wider context, mixed cultures are more interesting than pure cultures (which is why, for example, Catalonia offers a blend of elements more complex in its richness than either France or Spain), so a pianist who can command the whole range of manner from intimate thought to outgoing rhetoric may be esteemed more highly than the specialists at either end of that gamut.


Sergey Schepkin, who was born in St. Petersburg and moved in 1990 to Boston, where he studied with Russell Sherman, is such a pianist. I have known him hitherto almost exclusively through his recordings on the Ongaku label, which over the past decade have set new standards for Bach pianism through his stunning interpretations of the “Goldberg” Variations, the partitas, and the Well-Tempered Keyboard. So when, on his program for Harold Gray’s enterprising Portland Piano International series, I saw Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of His Most Dearly Beloved Brother figuring as seemingly just a curtain-raiser for five Debussy preludes, Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, and Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I was a little surprised, not to say disappointed. In the event, however, the recital proved, as I should have expected, to be a revelation.


Whereas in Bach – unless, unlike me, you love the legendary Glenn Gould’s treatment of that composer – Schepkin is in a class all his own, those other three composers set some formidable standards of competition. An aspirant in Musorgsky must be measured against the late, great Sviatoslav Richter, and in Debussy against the equally great if less widely celebrated Ivan Moravec. Well, Schepkin’s performances of Brouillards, Feuilles mortes, Ondine, Bruyères, and General Lavine–Eccentric, and of the Franck and Musorgsky works, showed him fully worthy to stand in that exalted company, making the very concept of competition seem in the context inappropriate and even a tad vulgar.


This was simply great music-making. Schepkin’s Debussy was perhaps just a touch less awe-inspiring than Moravec’s, owing, I think, to a less commanding realization of the bass sonorities (which may, of course, have had as much to do with the otherwise excellent Steinway used on this occasion as with his way of playing it). But he made as convincing a case for Franck’s fine if somewhat sentimental piece as I have ever encountered, and his Musorgsky was absolutely overwhelming. Schepkin’s conception allows less room for dawdling than did Richter’s in his classic 1958 recording, especially in the promenades and in such movements as The Old Castle. Yet there was never any lack of atmosphere or expression; Bydlo (which, like Richter, Schepkin began at a searing fortissimo) had enormous power; the genre pictures of The Tuileries, the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks, and The Marketplace in Limoges were marvelously witty; and the concluding evocation of The Great Gate in Kiev attained as much majesty as Musorgsky’s slightly clotted piano writing permits.


In all of this, it was indeed the combination of analytic thought with extrovert virtuosity that made Schepkin’s views of the familiar music at once fresh and totally compelling. Yet, in the end (or rather in the beginning) it was his Bach that stayed most vividly in my mind through the hours and days that followed. The Capriccio is a relatively minor chip from the composer’s workbench, but under Schepkin’s hands it emerged as a masterpiece, thanks alike to crystalline clarity of articulation, lucidity of texture, a warmth of feeling that never endangered stylistic purity, and vividly propulsive rhythm. When Schepkin plays Bach, the lines neither go their own unrelated ways nor seize up incoherently – each seems to drive its companions forward in a manner that is endlessly exhilarating. This may not be a unique gift, but it is one both rare and precious, and it makes him a pianist every lover of piano music, or indeed of music, needs to hear.


Bernard Jacobson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)