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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
33 Variations on a Waltz of Diabelli, op. 120
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Sonata no. 5
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in G flat, D.899 no. 3
Craig Sheppard (piano)
Recorded live at the Meany Theater, University of Washington, Seattle, May 1st 1995 (Beethoven), 25th February 1994 (Scriabin, Schubert)
AT 00-00239 [66’ 50”]

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Craig Sheppard evidently feels drawn towards large-scale variations, since this disc is part of a batch that also includes Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I made a fairly in-depth study of this latter, comparing it with four other piano versions, and it emerged as a front-runner. I hope at some stage to write a similar comparative review of five Diabelli recordings but it seems unreasonable to expect the company that submitted the disc to wait any longer while I find time to do this.

I have no doubt that this performance would come out highly from any such comparisons. It opens with a performance of Diabelli’s theme so tingling in vitality that it seems almost worthy of Beethoven himself, and it is for Sheppard’s response to Beethoven’s bluff good humour (a high percentage of the work) that the performance is memorable. His own booklet notes, brief but clearly expressed and absolutely to the point, might lead us to expect as much; he stresses that Beethoven’s “own correspondence of the time shows that he had enormous fun composing this large-scale work” and remarks that “such ebullience of spirit has scarcely ever been equalled in the piano literature”. Does he unwittingly draw attention to his own limitations when he describes the slow variation 31 as “touching in the extreme” rather than “moving in the extreme”? Though he handles it very nicely the ultimate inwardness of the greatest interpreters escapes him. However, I do not wish to make too much of this for he is never less than good. He is also very effective at presenting the variations as a continuous development (recording live presumably helped here).

A few reservations have to be made. Though I got used to the sound, it is somewhat limited, almost muffled in the piano’s middle register. It made me wonder if my equipment or my ears needed cleaning, but comparison with recordings that I knew to be excellent revealed nothing amiss. Recording live has the advantage that you get a “real” performance but it has its downside. The dotted rhythms in Variation 13 are rapped out well after the first three or four, but are unclear at the start. In variations with a lot of trills (6 or 21 for example), some trills are better done than others – in a studio performance there would have been the opportunity to make them all equally good. Generally Sheppard’s fidelity to Beethoven’s score is mostly exemplary but I thought some of the point-making in Variation 24 overdone. Still, all things considered I feel about Sheppard’s Diabelli much as I do about his Goldberg; it is a listener-friendly version, particularly recommendable to those who have found the Diabelli Variations in the past to be a rather forbidding masterpiece.

Some time ago I spoke highly of Austbo’s Scriabin cycle, part of a Brilliant box made problematic by the inclusion of MacLachlan’s undistinguished Prokofief performances. I have to say that Sheppard reveals greater artistic maturity in the fifth sonata. Deeply as Austbo responds to Scriabin’s moments of stasis, I feel on rehearing this recording that he lets the music stop too completely, too often. Sheppard manages to encompass the composer’s wayward extremes without losing the flow.

The performance I loved on this disc, though perhaps I shouldn’t, was the Schubert. In its rubato it is over the top in a way that few since Cherkassky would have dared, yet it is so warm and affectionate that I shall want to keep it on hand as an antidote to more classical interpretations. It also recalls the great pianists of the past in its combination of a beautifully mellow, singing melodic line with gently murmuring triplets, the two in exactly the right relationship to one another.

The four Craig Sheppard discs available through Annette Tangermann make up a picture of an artist who is particularly to be valued as a communicator. If he seems somewhat unpredictable in romantic territory (fine in Rachmaninov, but many of my reservations over his Chopin Preludes have been echoed in a more recent review by Jonathan Woolf) he has a lot to say about Bach, Beethoven and Schubert. And I must say I admire the whole spirit of this semi-private enterprise. In a world where classical CDs from the majors are depressing in their predictability and may even be a dying species, if you are convinced you have something to give then you should keep up the struggle. Even as traditional channels for reaching the public are running dry, Internet and globalisation offer unique opportunities for breaking through in other ways. You probably won’t make any money out of it, but if your desire is to communicate, you will at least have the satisfaction that someone, somewhere, is listening to you. I do hope that, in the absence of traditional marketing methods, the public who would potentially enjoy these discs will get to know they exist and take the trouble to order them (its so much easier just to pop down to the local shop and make do with what they offer).

Christopher Howell

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