> Scarlatti, Rachmaninov:Craig Sheppard [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonatas: b minor K.129, G major K.146, C major K.132, E major K.162, A major K.24
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

9 Etudes Tableaux op. 39, Prelude in g sharp minor, op. 32/12
Craig Sheppard (pianoforte)
Recorded live, 25.02.1994 (Scarlatti), 02.03.2000 (Rachmaninov), Meany Theatre, University of Washington, Seattle
AT 00-00118 [68.13]

I have very clear memories of the 1972 Leeds Competition – was it really thirty years ago? – but my memory had made a curious slip, for I was convinced that Craig Sheppard had won first prize and Murray Perahia had come second. Maybe it’s because the image I retain, of the tall, handsome young American playing a Rachmaninov concerto, is the image of a typical prize-winner, maybe it’s because it tends to be the way of the world that the leading international pianists, such as Perahia has been ever since, usually come second or worse in the big competitions. But no, the first place went to Perahia and, in accordance with the "winner takes all" principle that governs these things, he has never looked back. Craig Sheppard has certainly not disappeared from view (nor, for that matter has Eugene Indjic, who came third) but I have not had the occasion to follow his work He made a few recordings for Classics for Pleasure soon after his Leeds success but his career on disc has been sporadic. The present disc is one of four issued by AT, consisting of live performances. The other three contain Bach’s Goldberg Variations and 5th Partita, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with Scriabin’s 5th Sonata and a Schubert Impromptu, and Chopin’s Preludes together with the op. 11 Preludes of Scriabin. I have received all four for review and I considered bunching them together in a feature article. However, in view of the fact that each of the other three CDs is centred around an absolute cornerstone of the piano repertoire which demands detailed comparison with other versions (and in so far as I have dipped in, Craig Sheppard’s performances deserve such treatment), an article of the kind would be enormously long and would take some time to prepare. So I shall start by commenting on what is, from the reviewer’s point of view, the least demanding disc.

As well as playing, Sheppard provides his own notes. These are brief but very much to the point. He does not don the musicologist’s cap, neither does he blind the reader with science, but he seems to have a good understanding of what the common listener might wish to know. I point this out because it is coherent with the playing itself which is neither showy nor intellectual but has a way of getting to the heart of things. In the Scarlatti we immediately note an easy dialogue with the music, which bubbles into life with sparkling but not brittle fingerwork and he gives a clear shape to each one of Scarlatti’s often wayward phrases. His centrepiece is the quite extraordinary K.132 which with its dissonant harmonies and bird-like trills seems to leap across the centuries to meet Messiaen. Sheppard sounds rightly fascinated by it.

As the Rachmaninov starts – it is completely unedited, by the way – we hear at once that Sheppard can realise the composer’s surging romanticism no less than he could thirty years ago, but he also understands the uncertainty, the bitter and wry humour, the wiriness, and also the warmth, that is behind the facade. He is able to maintain clarity in the most teeming textures. In the second piece, where the "Dies irae" motive tolls sadly throughout, accompanied by gentle triplets, by one and sometimes two melodies in the higher reaches of the keyboard, and often by a sonorous bass as well, every strand is clear, and justly related to its neighbour, for each is given not only its right weight but its due colour too. Furthermore, Sheppard finds exactly the tempo in which the music has all the time needed to express itself, but never becoming sticky because the rocking motion of the triplets keeps it moving forwards. This is wonderful pianism.

But so is it all, Sheppard’s understanding of this music is really remarkably complete. I compared him, in nos. 3 and 4, with the recent Richter issue (BBC Legends BBCL 4082-2). Richter is considerably faster, indeed the immediate impact is that he is reducing the music to a gabble. After one has adjusted it has to be said that his knife-edged clarity is marvellous. And yet … I hesitate to say of any Richter performance that it is "all sound and fury, signifying nothing", but he was in an offhand mood on that occasion and gives us more of the "Etudes" than of the "Tableaux"; I truly feel that Sheppard finds more in the music.

The piano has a very full, rich sound and betrays its live origin only in a few discreet mechanical noises and some coughs from the audience – whose applause is less irritating than on many live discs simply because it is so clearly deserved.

I am not quite sure what the AT set-up is and perhaps once upon a time we would have made sneering references to "vanity records". I think times and marketing methods have changed, not least because "vanity" (of the kind the Bible teaches us to shun) is just what does reign at the top of the recording world, where a very few companies record a very few works with a very few artists. So I say all power to anybody who is convinced he has something to give to the public and finds the means to do so. I hope the public will respond by buying in droves, enabling this brave little label to put out all the repertoire Sheppard feels closest to, for this is a top quality product by one of the leading pianists of our times.
Christopher Howell

See also Interview by Rob Barnett


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