When I first saw the title given to this set of the Beethoven
piano sonatas I was a little apprehensive in case this was a glib
strap-line dreamed up by the marketing men. Such cynicism was
completely unjustified, however. What Craig Sheppard presents
here is indeed a journey, a musical and philosophical odyssey
through the sonatas. What’s particularly remarkable is that he
offers the sonatas in chronological order, exactly as, with a
couple of exceptions, he presented the music in a series of seven
concerts between January 2003 and May 2004. Those concerts are
preserved on these discs. In the concerts, for very good reasons,
there were a couple of minor divergences from the opus number
order. The two little sonatas that comprise Op. 49 were placed
in the middle of the second concert and restored to their rightful
chronological place because they were composed between 1795 and
1798. Perhaps of greater moment was the ordering of the programme
for the fifth concert, which I’ll discuss later on. I’m grateful
to Mr. Sheppard for supplying me with the information about the
precise dates on which each concert was given and for providing
me with additional information explaining the very valid reasons
that led him to depart from strict chronology in the fifth recital.
The use of the
word “journey” in the album title is deliberate. As Mr. Sheppard
writes in his eloquent and most interesting booklet essay,
the idea behind a chronological concert presentation of the
thirty-two sonatas was “to trace Beethoven’s growth from a
compositional, a spiritual and an intellectual perspective”.
Sheppard sees this as “essential to an understanding of our
own individual transformation as we progress through life.
In essence, Beethoven’s struggle is a metaphor for not only
our own individual journeys but also for the collective journey
of an entire planet.”
This may not be
a unique venture as a concert series – though in my experience
most pianists mix their programmes of Beethoven sonatas, tending
to offer a blend, perhaps, of early, middle or late sonatas.
However, so far as I’m aware the sonatas have not previously
been presented on CD as live performances in this chronological
fashion. Furthermore, in these recordings editing has been
kept to the barest minimum. In other words, what we hear on
these discs is as near as possible to what the concert audiences
heard. For domestic listening one can, of course, listen to
the sonatas in any order one chooses or just dip in for a
single sonata. However, I decided it would be an interesting
experience to listen to the discs as seven recitals, replicating
as closely as possible the way the audiences heard them on
those evenings, albeit with the recitals not so widely spaced,
and writing the notice of each concert before moving on to
the next. So what follows is my diary of listening.
7 January 2004
Op 2, No. 1
Op. 2, No. 2.
Op. 2, No.3
My Beethoven journey,
with Craig Sheppard as my guide, began with the first of his seven
It may not be
that usual to play the three sonatas that comprise Op. 2.
as a sequence in concert. Actually it’s a jolly good idea
because one can readily appreciate the compositional growth
that Beethoven displays in these pieces dedicated to his teacher,
Haydn. The spirit of Haydn and, indeed, of Mozart, can be
discerned quite readily in Op. 2 No. 1, especially
in the first two movements. From the outset I was impressed
by the nice clean articulation of Sheppard’s finger work and
by his fidelity to Beethoven’s markings. The benign influences
of Mozart and Haydn are evident in the second movement too
and here the pianist imparts a nice flow to the music and
deals very successfully with the significant amount of ornamentation.
Does the Menuetto show us the first sign in these sonatas
of Beethoven the maverick, the innovator? He places the melody
on some unexpected beats with the result that the music has
an irregular feel. Already we sense Beethoven moving out of
the shadows of Haydn and becoming his own man. This is even
more evident in the pell-mell finale where Beethoven’s trademark
use of abrupt contrast between loud and soft dynamics and
another trait, his use of sforzandi, are both much
At the end of
this performance some of the appreciative applause is retained.
I quite like this, as it reminds us we’re listening to a live
event. Strangely, however, there is an inconsistent policy
about the retention of applause in this set.
Op. 2, No.
2 is a generally good-humoured affair. Once again Sheppard’s
playing displays admirable clarity. He brings a lovely, witty
touch to the first movement. His use of rubato is sparing
but always seems highly appropriate. . I liked his reading
of the second movement, Largo appassionato, which in
parts sounds almost like a slow march. The important bass
line is well defined and the playing as a whole is nicely
poised. The short powerful climax is well achieved and the
wind-down from it equally well controlled. The playing in
the rondo finale displays a splendid degree of fantasy. Later
on, when the music moves into triplets at bar 57, there’s
the right amount of energy in the pianism and I particularly
relished the fine leggiero playing and Sheppard’s deft
In his notes the
pianist points out that Op. 2, No 3 is much more of
a virtuoso work than its companions. We can see this immediately
in the first movement, which is clearly much more demanding
of the soloist. The music is more rhetorical too. Sheppard
handles this movement superbly, especially the rather turbulent
development section. The adagio second movement is
more profound than anything we’ve heard to date. Sheppard
shapes it beautifully and with fine feeling. His playing has
the requisite degree of power or delicacy according to Beethoven’s
demands. In the mercurial scherzo he displays fine finger
work once again and makes excellent use of the many accents
and the dynamic contrasts that Beethoven has written into
the music, recognising how important all this is to an effective
performance. His account of the scampering finale inspires
the audience to an ovation that’s well deserved.
This third sonata
demonstrates a very definite advance over the other two sonatas
and hearing them in sequence makes the point brilliantly.
Already Craig Sheppard’s chronological approach has paid a
substantial dividend in the very first programme.
To conclude he
offers Op. 7. The helter-skelter opening movement is
dispatched with brio. Yet again the precise observance of
Beethoven’s markings, the sforzandi in particular,
is shown to be crucial to success. Writing of the slow movement
of this sonata Sheppard rightly draws attention to the importance
of rests and silences in the music. The movement is marked
Largo, con gran espressione and Sheppard does
indeed play it with great expression – though he never overdoes
the expression. The following allegro is a little caprice,
a welcome contrast to the slow movement. It’s charming, though
there’s a minor-key central section in which the skies darken
somewhat. Sheppard offers mainly relaxed but always observant
playing in this movement. The concluding rondo is a delight
in his hands. Its turbulent section in the minor is projected
strongly and there’s a lovely and very satisfying sense of
logic in the way he brings the movement and the whole sonata
to a close.
This first programme
has been most stimulating and enjoyable and splendidly played.
My appetite has been well and truly whetted for the journey
Second Recital. 17 March 2003
Op. 10, No 1
Op. 49 No 1
Op. 10 No. 2
Op. 10 No. 3
Op. 49 No. 2
The inclusion of the two Op. 49 sonatas at this juncture
is correct for they were written at some time between 1795
and 1798. It seems that Beethoven did not intend to publish
them and it was his brother, Carl, who arranged for publication,
without Beethoven’s prior knowledge or consent, in 1803. This
explains the relatively high opus numbers. Sensibly, I think,
Craig Sheppard intersperses them between the sonatas that
constitute Op. 10.
Op. 10, No. 1 as impulsive in his notes and that comes
out in his playing. There’s lots of light and shade in his
reading of the first movement. The second movement mixes restlessness
and tranquillity and Sheppard catches those differing moods
well. He brings great energy to the finale. Op. 49 No.
1 is a very small-scale piece but Sheppard gives it its
full worth, playing fluently in the first movement and delivering
the perky little rondo finale – there are only two movements
– with aplomb. The first movement of Op. 10 No. 2 is
almost cheekily insouciant. Here again Sheppard’s excellent
feel for and accuracy in rhythm serves the music well. The
good-natured finale is mercurial and comes across well.
Op. 10 No. 3 is
described in the notes as an “architectural gem”. The first
movement is sparky and inventive. Sheppard says of the slow
movement that it is “easily [Beethoven’s] most tragic, and
to my mind his greatest slow movement up to that of the Hammerklavier
of 1818.” He goes on to suggest that the tone of the music
may well have been dictated by Beethoven’s first intimations,
around this time, of his hearing problems. Sheppard responds
to this profound music with deeply felt and very sensitive
playing. The elegiac passage from bar 30 is very powerful
here. The strongly profiled playing that he offers in this
movement makes the mainly quiet last few measures from bar
76 all the more affecting. This movement contains deeply impressive
music which here receives a performance to match. The quirky,
impulsive finale is played with élan and Sheppard makes
the coda irresistible. The little sonata Op. 49 No.
2 that follows is pleasingly fresh.
The recital ends
with the first of the “big name” sonatas, the Pathétique.
This is the grandest sonata we’ve encountered so far and,
comparing it with the sonatas of Op. 10 Sheppard writes that
it “appears conservative, bold and raw in its assertiveness,
but not nearly as innovative as the previous works.” In the
first movement he does something rather unusual, taking the
exposition repeat right back to the start of the movement
rather than from the beginning of the Allegro di molto,
as is marked in most editions of the score, including the
edition with which I’m following these performances. In this
he says he is following the example of Rudolf Serkin and he
comments that, since the autograph has not survived we can’t
know what the composer’s intentions were. I must say I’m unsure
about this. On the one hand, the imposing opening Grave
has all the characteristics of an introduction and perhaps
its effect is all the greater if heard only once in its entirety.
On the other hand, abbreviated forms of the Grave crop
up elsewhere in the movement, suggesting Beethoven intended
it as more than a one-off introductory passage. Also Sheppard
has precedent on his side in that the exposition repeat in
the first movements of previous sonatas invariably start from
the very beginning. It’s a debatable point and I can see both
sides of the argument. All I will say is that Sheppard makes
a convincing case for his decision in this performance.
He gives a splendidly
fiery and propulsive account of the first movement and in the
material of the Grave he’s suitably mysterious and majestic.
His reading of the Adagio cantabile is patrician, bringing
out well the stoic nobility of the music. To the wonderful rondo
finale he brings an agility and grace that seems effortless and
an abundance of energy too. All in all he gives a splendid account
of the sonata and is rightly rewarded with a most enthusiastic
audience response at the end. This Pathétique caps another
fine and stimulating recital.
21 May 2003
Op. 14 No. 1
Op. 14 No. 2
Op. 27 No. 1
Op. 27 No. 2
This is a lengthy
and challenging programme, comprising no less than six sonatas
and running to some 108 minutes of music. First up is Op.
14 No. 1. This, we are told, is one of Sheppard’s personal
favourites on account of its “gentility.” Interestingly, it’s
also music that Beethoven later adapted and re-worked into
a string quartet. The opening movement is predominantly easy
and sunny in tone and Sheppard plays it as such. It’s a relaxed
performance and I liked his grace and lightness of touch.
The second movement is similarly benign and the concluding
fleet rondo is deftly done.
Of its companion,
Op. 14 No. 2, Sheppard writes that “while gentle and
affecting on the surface (particularly in the first movement),
[it] gives us a new view of Beethoven the Experimenter.”
As with the previous sonata the first movement is mainly easy
in tone. Sheppard’s playing is affectionate and poised and
in his hands the movement is a delight. The following Andante
is not, perhaps, Beethoven’s most interesting movement. The
direction Andante is generally held to imply walking
pace and that’s exactly the speed at which the music is taken
here; I think the choice of speed is perfect. And I was equally
taken with the precision of the playing. The puckish and rhythmically
unexpected scherzo finale is another movement in which rests
and silences are of crucial importance. Once again Sheppard
brings a deft touch to the proceedings.
The first movement
of Op. 22 is vigorous and somewhat abrupt. By contrast
the following Adagio is most expressive. As he has done before
Sheppard here displays a remarkable ability to let Beethoven’s
slower music breathe and unfold at its own pace. In the Menuetto
that follows I wondered for the very first time in the cycle
about Sheppard’s choice of speed. It seemed somewhat brisk
for a minuet, which is, after all, a dance. Yet for all that
the chosen tempo fits the character of the music well, especially
the minor-key trio. Perhaps Beethoven’s title was misleading?
The somewhat turbulent finale is strongly projected.
opens, for the first time in Beethoven’s piano sonatas, not
with a sonata-form movement but with a theme and variations.
There are five variations in all and they’re very interesting
ones. Craig Sheppard is surely right to say that the predominant
feature in this movement is pianistic colour. The third movement
is a funeral march, “for a dead hero”, though who is commemorated
here is unknown. It’s powerful, dark music and Sheppard projects
it vividly and dramatically.
The two sonatas
that comprise Op. 27 both bear the title Sonata quasi una
Fantasia. Op. 27 No. 1 consists of four short,
linked movements. Again Beethoven opens with a set of variations.
These are full of surprises such as the modulation in bar
13 and the sudden allegro section that erupts at bar 37. There
are more surprises in the second movement, though these are
rhythmical and subtle. The headlong finale is the key movement
for me and it incorporates yet another surprise in the form
of a brief recapitulation, near the end, of the material of
the fine Adagio third movement. Sheppard’s excellent performance
of this sonata raise cheers from his audience and I’m not
surprised. This sonata offers, I think, another example of
the benefits of Sheppard’s chronological approach. This is
the fifteenth sonata in the series and the ones we’ve heard
previously have been full of invention and new thinking. However,
in this performance I was struck quite forcibly by how innovative
in many ways is Op. 27 No. 1 Hearing it in chronological context
makes it seem like a breakthrough piece and something of a
watershed. Craig Sheppard opined that Op. 14 No. 2 introduced
us to Beethoven the Experimenter. May I suggest respectfully
that this is even more true of Op. 27 No. 1?
The final item
is the familiar Op. 27 No. 2, the so-called “Moonlight”.
I liked Sheppard’s way with the famous first movement. He
plays it with feeling and dignity but his performance is natural
and unaffected. For me the highlight is his reading of the
tempestuous finale. This is headstrong, impetuous music, which
he plays with real bits and urgency. Despite the frequent
cantabile passages this is volcanic music and the performance
is really exciting. It’s small wonder that the audience bursts
into cheers at the end.
and very stimulating recital concludes Craig Sheppard’s
exploration of Beethoven’s so-called early period sonatas.
The first stage of the journey has been concluded and numerically
we’ve reached the halfway point. So far it’s been a most
rewarding and illuminating voyage of discovery.
14 October 2003
Op. 31 No. 1.
Op. 31 No. 2
Op. 31 No. 3
The sonata Op.
28 was named ‘Pastorale’ by Beethoven’s publisher
rather than by its author. Though written at a time of some
personal turbulence in Beethoven’s life, its general tone
is pacific. Sheppard conveys well the essentially beneficent
mood of the first movement but also has the necessary strength
in the development section. Not for the first time I admired
his very natural use of rubato. The slow movement is rather
unusual, sounding like a little march, albeit not a military
one. The purposeful tread of the bass line is well brought
out here and there’s an equally successful realisation of
the perky character of the scherzando-like central
section. From bar 83 until the end of the movement Sheppard
pulls back the speed. This isn’t marked in the edition of
the score that I’ve been using – but it is totally convincing.
In the finale the pianist’s deft touch is once again evident
as he gives a nice lift to the rhythms. In the più
allegro coda he’s admirably nimble.
What a good idea
to programme together the three sonatas that comprise Op.
31, especially as they are so different from each other! Op.
31 No. 1 is a good-humoured work. Sheppard gives a lively
and smiling account of the first movement, which includes
a good deal of rushing passagework. Beethoven sustains the
jocular mood into the second movement, with music that’s often
playful. The concluding rondo features what perhaps I might
term strongly profiled geniality and the music of the coda
really wears a smile. I enjoyed Sheppard’s performance of
this sonata very much.
In his notes Sheppard
de-bunks the notion that Op. 31 No. 2 is a response
to or commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and his
reasoning seems completely sound to me. He says that this
is a difficult piece and that the performer needs to think
outside the box if it’s to be successfully realised. He maintains
that the music has a sense of impending tragedy and, for me,
this comes across in his performance. In the first movement
every time the harp-like largo section occurs he plays
it quite magically. But alongside this poetic delicacy is
steely determination in the turbulent development section.
The music of the adagio is ruminative but Sheppard very rightly
maintains a proper forward momentum so that any danger of
the music becoming becalmed is avoided. He points out in his
note that some pianists, manly younger ones, play the concluding
allegretto too fast. The speed that he himself chooses seems
to be to be admirably sane – well-judged tempi have been a
conspicuous feature of this cycle so far – and the music benefits.
There’s clarity but also the appropriate amount of weight
in a wholly successful reading of the movement.
Op. 31 No. 3 as “a breath of fresh air” after its
predecessor. The music of the first movement sounds at ease
with itself, not least the delightfully playful melody that
we first hear at bar 46. There’s almost a skittish feel
to parts of this movement, which Sheppard plays superbly.
His playing of the second movement is infectiously animated
and he’s just as convincing in the slow minuet that Beethoven
places third in the sonata. The finale is an irrepressible,
helter-skelter dance that just whirls along in this performance.
Beethoven is in the highest possible spirits here and the
notes just seem to tumble over each other – but Craig Sheppard
achieves this without even a hint of losing control. Beethoven’s
characteristic use of sudden dynamic changes is perfectly
realised and the propulsive rhythms propel the music along
marvellously. This superb performance of Op. 31 No 3, one
of the very best so far in the series, makes an exhilarating
end to another fine recital, one that’s rightly appreciated
by the audience.
Recital. 7 January 2004
With this group
of sonatas there was departure from the strict chronological
presentation, as will be evident from the sub-heading above.
As Craig Sheppard commented in a note to me: “I felt that
a program which included both the Waldstein and the
Appassionata couldn’t end with Op. 79, so I switched
the order, finishing with Op. 57. It was not an easy decision
to make. Historically, Opp. 78 and 79 belong to a later period.
But I had to think of my audience.” This pragmatic decision
seems fair enough to me. On the CDs the chronology has been
restored but I decided to stick with my policy of listening
to the sonatas as they had been presented in concert.
Op. 78 is
a brief sonata in just two movements. The first movement,
which is a very lyrical invention, features a repeat of the
development as well as the exposition. The second movement
is a merry little creation. Sheppard plays the sonata very
well. He’s equally successful in Op. 79, another relatively
diminutive composition, which is actually subtitled Sonatina.
This time there are three movements. Once again the opening
movement, which is lively, includes a repeat of the development
section. The brief andante, in 9/8 time, offers some moments
of repose and the finale is full of a sense of well-being.
Then it’s on to
the much more substantial fare of the “Waldstein” Sonata,
Op. 53. This is aptly described by Sheppard as a ”life-affirming
and positive work”. He also comments on the work’s “overall
sense … of enormous drive and unbridled enthusiasm.” This
is certainly reflected in his performance. He offers effervescent
and joyful playing in the magnificent first movement. In what
he calls the “introspective and sometimes painful” slow movement
I admired particularly his control in the mysterious opening
bars where it seems that Beethoven is groping for a tonal
centre. He starts the final rondo with a good sense of tranquillity
but later on there’s abundant strength in his playing. The
final prestissimo is hugely energetic. Incidentally,
the Andante favori, which Beethoven originally
intended as the slow movement of this sonata but later discarded
- probably correctly – is played as an appendix to this disc.
The second half
of this recital began with Op. 54, which Sheppard rates
as “one of the unsung heroes of Beethoven’s piano output”.
In the first movement, in which, unusually, Beethoven included
no repeats, Sheppard contrasts the two thematic ideas very
well. I admired especially his athletic finger-work in the
prolonged passages of staccato triplets. The second of the
sonata’s two movements is marked Allegretto but Sheppard
maintains that the ideal speed needs to be somewhere between
Allegretto and Allegro. It seems to me that the speed for
which he opts is pretty much ideal. The seemingly never-ending
stream of semi quavers is rhythmically tricky but, of course,
he’s equal to the challenge. The closing più allegro
is exhilarating. He says the movement is fun to play – it
sounds to be!
The recital ends
with the great Appassionata Sonata, Op. 57.The
whole work is derived from a few small pieces of musical material,
which leads Sheppard to aver that this sonata shows us “Beethoven,
the Master Architect”. In the first movement he lays out
the portentous, brooding opening most atmospherically. Later,
in the main body of the movement, his playing has tremendous
dramatic thrust. Indeed, hereabouts he offers some of his
most powerful pianism to date. It’s a huge, virile performance
in which he conveys splendidly the grand rhetorical sweep
of Beethoven’s conception.
In the Andante
con moto he increases the pace slightly at bar 17, after
the initial paragraph. That tempo modification isn’t marked
in the edition of the score that I’ve been using. However,
I think the change is justified by the rhetorical nature of
the opening bars and the subtle change of character in the
music at the point where Sheppard presses on a little. Naturally,
and rightly, when the opening material is reprised towards
the end of the movement, at bar 81, Sheppard eases back to
his tempo primo. The furious, driving finale is then
unleashed and the music surges along powerfully. Sheppard’s
playing is tremendously fiery and propulsive. In fact his
account of this prodigious movement is impassioned – but it’s
controlled too. The final presto is thrilling and,
unsurprisingly, the audience erupts at the end.
Having heard his accounts
of this sonata and of Op. 53 I think Craig Sheppard’s decision
to modify his chronological survey and to think of his audience
was entirely right. The order in which he presented these sonatas
was as logical as it was considerate of his audience.
Sixth Recital. 16 March 2004
recital was another pianistic marathon, encompassing four
sonatas and lasting over 90 minutes. It began with Op.
81a. Sheppard is very eloquent in the adagio introduction
to the first movement and in the main body of the allegro
he seems to me to find and convey nobility as well as energy.
In the slow movement he puts across touchingly Beethoven’s
sense of loss at the absence of his patron. I relished the
joyous outburst with which the finale opens. The high spirits
continue thereafter and Sheppard seems to revel in this celebratory
music. This is a highly successful account of the sonata.
It was followed
by Op. 90. At the time Beethoven composed this he was
in a much happier frame of mind for some time, at least as
regards the political situation in Europe, although his personal
life continued to be turbulent. There are only two movements
to this sonata and, uniquely he prescribed no repeats at all.
I must admit I find the first movement rather hard to grasp.
I don’t mean it in a pejorative sense when I say that the
music seems to proceed in fits and starts. What seems to me
to be the somewhat disjointed nature is certainly deliberate
but the lack of a sense of flow doesn’t help my comprehension
of the music, I find. The subsequent movement possesses just
that sense of flow that I couldn’t find in its predecessor.
It’s an easeful, lyrical creation. Beethoven’s making at the
head of this movement includes the words “…und sehr
singbar vorzutragen” (“with a very singing style of
playing”). It seems to me that Craig Sheppard fulfils this
requirement precisely. He gives a very happy reading of this
sunny music and I enjoyed it immensely.
Op. 101 is
the first of the final group of five sonatas, penned between
1816 and 1822, in which Beethoven, the great innovator, pushed
back the boundaries of the piano sonata further and further.
In the first movement of this sonata not only does he employ
compound time but also he often places the notes across the
beat. He thereby gives an uncertain feel to the rhythm even
while the music is flowing. It’s an elusive movement and I
admired Sheppard’s sensitive playing of it. The second movement
is a kind of hybrid of quick march and scherzo. It’s an unconventional,
jaunty piece with some unexpected harmonic shifts, which is
well realised on this occasion. The indication at the top
of the slow movement is Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll
(“Slow and full of longing.”) The second part of that injunction
is crucial and it’s the key to Sheppard’s performance, I think.
It’s a reflective meditation but one with much inner strength
and I found him to be totally in tune with the nature of the
music. The finale follows without a break and once again we
notice the extra precision of instruction that Beethoven achieves
through including tempo indications in German as well as the
usual Italian. Here he ends his instructions with the words
“… und mit Entschlossenheit” (“and with determination.”).
Once more Sheppard is faithful in his execution of this demand.
At the heart of the movement lies a four-voice fugue – the
first fugue to be found in a Beethoven sonata, I think – and,
as has been the case so often during this cycle, Sheppard’s
playing of this passage is notable for its clarity. His reading
of this sonata is an unqualified success and it’s rewarded
with an ovation from the Seattle audience.
Not content with
those three demanding works, Craig Sheppard then essayed in
the second half of his programme, the Everest of sonatas,
the mighty Hammerklavier. The scale of Beethoven’s
ambition in this huge sonata can be seen in the fact that
the length of Op. 106 is only some eight minutes less
than the combined duration of the of the other three sonatas
that were included in this one recital!
the right blend of heroism and turbulence in the first movement.
There’s abundant strength in his playing, allied to refinement
when Beethoven calls for it. For me he conveys the epic sweep
of this movement vividly. He makes the right use of the plethora
of percussive accents that Beethoven wrote into the score
and, all in all, I found this a bracing and invigorating reading
of the music. He’s just as good in the explosive, vital scherzo.
But then, after all the enormous energy that has characterised
the first two movements Beethoven sets his pianist a very
different and even more exacting test. The music of the Adagio
explores unprecedentedly vast expanses and distant horizons.
It’s a profound and powerful meditation and it’s as much a
test of intellect as of technique. I admired greatly the subtlety
and grandeur of Sheppard’s playing of this humbling music
and I found it very moving, all the more so for being ‘live’
and not the product of who knows how much studio editing.
thirty minutes of demanding music, a longer expanse than
in any previous sonata, Beethoven has an even greater challenge
for those who would attempt to scale this pianistic peak.
The vast finale is a daunting prospect, bristling with technical
difficulties. The huge fugue makes prodigious demands and
once again Sheppard’s playing is admirably clear. Not only
does he evidence great technique in this performance but
he also shows tremendous commitment. The brief cantabile
section at bar 240 comes as balm after the intellectual
rigour of the preceding ferocious musical argument. However,
it’s but a brief stop at an oasis before Beethoven sets
off again. As the performance gathered yet more momentum
and tension I found myself wondering how one person can
remember all these notes, let alone execute them. This is
what’s meant by virtuosity. Sheppard brings to an end his
electrifying reading, the audience cheers and the listener
at home, caught up in the flood tide of the music, feels
like joining in.
So ends an exhausting
but hugely stimulating recital. Can Craig Sheppard sustain
let alone follow this level of achievement?
18 May 2004
The end of the
journey is in sight but three sonatas, all of them highly
demanding of both performer and listener, remain. None is
on the vast scale of the Hammerklavier. and, in fact,
as Craig Sheppard points out, in some ways these three works
show Beethoven consciously returning to a more simple and
direct style. Whilst that is true, this reversion does not
mean a sacrifice of profundity; if anything, the reverse is
The opening of
Op. 109 is rippling, free-flowing music, stripped back
to essentials, and I like Sheppard’s verdict that the second
subject “seems as if from another planet”. He drives forward
the short second movement, prestissimo, with great
purpose. The finale is a set of variations, the first time
that Beethoven had employed such a form in the finale to a
sonata. The theme is serene and Sheppard voices it to perfection.
As the variations unfold that clarity in his playing, which
I’ve come to value so highly, is once again to the fore. The
variations are splendid, especially the first, fourth and
the powerful sixth one. The quietly dignified reprise of the
theme at the end of the movement – and the sonata – is a perfect
QED. For once I’m glad that applause has been edited out;
it would have intruded into the communing mood established
by Craig Sheppard’s eloquent playing.
He describes Op.
110 as “the architectural gem of the last three sonatas.”
I love the disarming simplicity of the very opening, excellently
laid out by Sheppard. He unfolds Beethoven’s argument compellingly
and logically and I rate his account of this movement very
highly. After the short fiery interlude of the Allegro
molto the finale begins with an aria, which is a lament
of profound gravitas. The three-voiced fugue is Bachian in
its complexity and resourcefulness. Yet again Sheppard impresses
with the clarity of his playing in complex stretches such
as this. There’s also abundant power in his playing. In Beethoven’s
novel structure the aria returns and then the fugue reappears,
this time in inverted form. It needs concentration and conviction
on the part of the pianist if this is all to hang together
properly but Sheppard is fully equal to Beethoven’s demands.
In his hands the magisterial ending is done full justice.
And then comes Op.
111. In this extraordinary two-movement piece Beethoven, in
Sheppard’s memorable phrase, “appears to have put every bit of
his compositional and spiritual genius into compressed form.”
The performance here is a worthy one. In the powerful, yet well-shaded
first movement introduction Sheppard offers playing full of suspense
and then in the allegro itself he’s vigorous and assertive but
equally adept at conveying the many subtleties of the piece. The
opening of the second movement, another set of variations, is
marked Adagio molto semplice e cantabile and Sheppard realises
this injunction perfectly. Throughout the variations that follow
he displays rapt concentration and offers some moments of exquisite
pianism, such as the passages marked leggieramente from
bar 72 onwards. Eventually, and with seeming inevitability, Sheppard
brings the movement, and the cycle, home to a peaceful and profound
conclusion. Once again there is, happily, no applause to break
the moment. One wonders what thoughts passed through Craig Sheppard’s
mind as his Journey through the thirty-two sonatas came to an
Journey’s End: Some Final Thoughts
First, a few words
about the presentation of the set. The discs come in a box
and are housed in jewel cases rather than slip covers. The
booklet contains very good notes by Craig Sheppard himself,
on which I’ve drawn quite a bit in the course of this review.
In all the performances he used his own piano, a Hamburg Steinway
D, which has a nice, full and mature tone. The sonority is
impressive and never sounds forced even when Beethoven requires
his pianist to play at full tilt. The recorded sound is both
good and, crucially, consistent over the span of the seven
concerts, although for some tastes it may seem that the piano
has been recorded a bit too close. The one thing I should
point out is that there’s quite a bit of pedal noise. That’s
especially noticeable if listening through headphones but
it also registers through loudspeakers. The audience, on the
other hand, is commendably silent. The set comes on nine discs
but I believe the retail price equates roughly to the cost
of five full-price CDs.
And what can one
say of the performances themselves? Well firstly, like the
recorded sound, they strike me as being pretty consistent.
Mr Sheppard is completely committed to the cause of the sonatas
and plays them with deep understanding and excellent technique.
I’m particularly struck by the evident care and affection
he feels for some of the less well known earlier sonatas.
He makes that clear in his notes and it comes across in his
playing of them. I felt that his choice of tempi was pretty
unfailingly judicious and, following the performances in the
scores, I found that he is extremely alert to the observance
of Beethoven’s markings. But these are anything but pedantically
accurate performances: this pianist has a real feel for the
style and sweep of the music and has obviously thought long
and hard about Beethoven’s vision.
Above all these
are real performances and, in the last analysis, that’s
what makes them so special. These discs are not the product
of aseptic studio takes with all the opportunities for correction
and pasting together that studio work offers. No, Craig Sheppard
has gone out on stage in front of real people and played for
them. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a deal
to release these recordings commercially was only concluded
after the series of recitals had taken part and that the recordings
were effectively a by-product of the concerts. Some editing
has taken place, I understand, from the dress rehearsals but
I’m more than ready to accept that editing has been kept to
an absolute minimum: that’s certainly the way it sounds. These
performances are the real thing and any very occasional minor
technical slips are an insignificant price to pay for the
sense of occasion that these recordings convey.
There can never
be such a thing as a “definitive” cycle of the Beethoven piano
sonatas. Such an achievement lies beyond the grasp of one
individual, I believe. In any case one would not wish to be
without the insights of several pianists in this music – Brendel
and Schnabel, despite his technical fallibilities, are just
two names that spring immediately to mind in this connection.
However, this cycle by Craig Sheppard deserves to be ranked
among the very best. It is an involving, communicative, carefully
considered, satisfying and deeply musical traversal of the
thirty-two sonatas. There are significant gains to be captured
through hearing an artist explore these wide ranging and very
varied works in chronological order and I feel that I have
a greater grasp of the scale of Beethoven’s achievement as
Craig Sheppard on this tremendous achievement. Roméo Records
also deserve our congratulations and thanks for their enterprise
in releasing these discs. Probably only a small independent
label would have the courage and vision to do so and I hope
they’ll be rewarded with strong sales.
It’s been a fascinating
and very rewarding experience to make this Journey with Craig
Sheppard as my highly reliable and stimulating guide. This
has been one of my listening highlights of the year and I
urge those who take Beethoven’s piano music seriously to take
this Journey for themselves.
see also Review
by Jonathan Woolf