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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Sonatas: No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2/1 (1795) [23.01]; No. 2 in A major, Op. 2/2 (1795) [27.28]; No. 3 in C major, Op. 2/3 (1795) [26.32]; No. 4 in E flat major ("Grand Sonata"), Op. 7 (1796-97) [27.18]; No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10/1 (1796-98) [17.53]; No. 6 in F major, Op. 10/2 (1796-98) [16.36]; No. 7 in D major, Op. 10/3 (1796-98) [22.15]; No. 8 in C minor ("Pathétique"), Op. 13 (1798-99) [19.14]; No. 9 in E major, Op. 14/1 (1798-99) [13.44]; No. 10 in G major, Op. 14/2 (1798-99) [17.13]; No. 11 in B flat major, Op. 22 (1799-1800) [25.08] ; No. 12 in A flat major ("Funeral March"), Op. 26 (1800-01) [19.04]; No. 13 in E flat major ("Quasi una fantasia"), Op. 27/1 (16.14]; No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2 (1801) [15.19]; No. 15 in D major ("Pastoral"), Op. 28 (1801) [27.25]; No. 16 in G major, Op. 31/1 (1801-02) [23.58]; No. 17 in D minor ("Tempest"), Op. 31/2 (1801-02) [23.57]; No. 18 in E flat major ("Hunt"), Op. 31/3 (1801-02) [24.40]; No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49/1 (1795-98) [7.27]; No. 20 in G major, Op. 49/2 (1795-96) [8.03]; No. 21 in C major ("Waldstein"), Op. 53 (1803-04) [25.13]; No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 (1804) [11.21]; No. 23 in F minor ("Appassionata"), Op. 57 (1804-05) [24.07]; No. 24 in F sharp major ("A Thérèse"), Op. 78 (1809) [10.02]; No. 25 in G major ("Cuckoo"), Op. 79 (1809) [9.05]; No. 26 in E flat major ("Les Adieux"), Op. 81a (1809-10) [17.53]; No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90 (1814) [13.21]; No. 28 in A major, Op. 101 (1816) [20.43]; No. 29 in B flat major ("Hammerklavier"), Op. 106 (1817-18) [42.07] ; No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 (1820) [19.04]; No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821) [19.09]; No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 (1821-22) [25.26]
Andante for piano in F major ("Andante favori") WoO 57 (1803) [8.01]
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. live, Meany Theatre, Seattle, January 2003-May 2004. DDD
ROMÉO RECORDS 7233/41 [9 CDs: 77:03 + 77:24 + 72:20 + 76:30 + 75:11 + 69:16 + 74:38 + 65:20 + 64:13]

 

Craig Sheppard’s cycle of the Beethoven sonatas was given in the Meany Theatre, Seattle, over a period of sixteen months between 2003 and 2004. The sonatas were given chronologically in a series called Beethoven: A Journey. The performances are unedited and have now appeared in a nine CD box. Not that Sheppard has previously shied away from imposing, live Beethovenian Meany Theatre recitals on disc. Three years ago I reviewed his deeply impressive Diabelli Variations performance (see review), which he coupled with Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata and Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat D899. This, one of the peaks of Beethoven’s solo piano writing – perhaps the peak – drew from Sheppard a profound awareness of characterisation in all its myriad breadth and this, allied to a potent and unruffled technique, coalesced in a performance of, for want of a better phrase, powerful universality of spirit.

So one should expect no less of Sheppard, three years later, than that he should have proved equally masterful in his unfolding of the sonatas.

At the risk of courting dullness in a similarly chronological review of Sheppard’s playing I think it’s best to alight on certain features of his playing, qualities that lend so cohesive and convincing a standpoint to these works. One is rhythmic; note the easy swing generated in the opening of Op.7 or the commensurately powerful chording in its Largo. There’s the brisk, businesslike determination evoked in the Allegro of Op.10 No.2 and the distinctive textual clarity explored in the opus companion in D major in which a rather martial declamation is to the fore. The quality of clarity – never equitable with coldness – is exemplified in the Largo e mesto of Op.10 No.3. Sheppard refuses either to inflate these early sonatas beyond their natural stylistic bounds or to downplay their more cavalier moments, characterising instead with affinity for their particular place in the Beethovenian scheme of things.

Thus by the time we reach the Pathétique we find all these qualities firmly in place; dynamics are natural sounding and not subject to extremes; there’s a sense of measure in phrasal placement; the slow movement is reserved but not indifferent; there’s great care over note values and articulation; phrases flow with crest and fall; the finale is not an exercise in defiance or over-generous emotionalism. Things are, in fact, profitably scaled, both emotively and architecturally. Some may find Sheppard here rather unwilling to luxuriate in romantic reverie; others will warmly welcome the imagination and intelligence that informs playing that remains true to itself.

I enjoyed his way with the Op.14 sonatas – wittily engaging in the capricious modernity of the E major and displaying limpidity and lyricism in its companion in G major where his clipped phrasing in the Andante is well contrasted with more yielding pliancy of phrasing. So too the real élan of his bumptious brio in Op.22 with its corollary, a measured dignity. What Sheppard does so well in these earlier sonatas is to present a rather formal control; he does it in Op.26’s Funeral March to fine effect; there’s a sense of distance, emotively speaking, a rather formalised concentration that marks a delineation between the personal and the externalised and has a rather pictorial cast.

The Moonlight remains entirely consonant with the tenor of his playing – subtlety of dynamics, no overt emotionalising beyond natural constraints, tonal colour, a clear sense of pacing, and a natural sense of the peaks and troughs of phraseology. To this extent the Allegretto can sound a touch deliberate but this is part of Sheppard’s schema for the sonata; one listens unencumbered by pre-judgement or presupposition when one hears playing such as this.

Sheppard revels in the operatic vocalising of the opening of Op.28 – here his skilful balancing of hands, his subtle pedal usage and his instinct for the natural falling of phrases is at its most impressive and acute. The repeated left hand figures are perfectly scaled and the gentlemanly rococo flourishes mid section are brought out with glorious wit. Catching wit, exploring the more guttural and coalescing the two are constant features of this playing; so the witty badinage of Op.31 No.1 is reinforced by the slow movement’s left hand repeated stabbing and ensuing gallant roulades and furtive frivolities in the slow movement. The Tempest is measured, coloured with chording of considerable weight and portent, a sense of gravity ever-present; Sheppard is certainly not afraid to make gruff attacks when necessary as we can hear in the same sonata’s Allegretto finale. Fluid and lyric the Op.49 sonatas are given their full measure of Sheppardian acuity. Rubati are finely judged throughout. There’s splendid swagger in the Op.54.

The Waldstein evinces a reserved and patrician gravity; dynamics count, contrastive moods are integrated within the whole; points are made through entirely musico-dramatic means, tension is generated incrementally throughout the finale but with the sense of an Allegretto moderato before the Prestissimo conclusion. His approach to the Appassionata prefigures his way with the last sonatas; one senses that things are unresolved, that the expressive control exercised in the slow movement – in its compressed intensity – is a microcosm of future intensities and that the driving, note perfect finale is the natural consummation of the preceding rhetoric.

He takes seriously Op.78 – delicate treble sonorities – and vests Op.79 with a reflective and questing drama. There’s superb balance between hands and a songful seriousness entirely appropriate to the feel of the music. The lightness and relief of the vivace finale ends a mini drama of compelling but appropriate intensity. This being the case it’s no great surprise to find Les Adieux responds so well to Sheppard’s sense of the listless and unsettled, though one should again note that he eschews artifice and bogus brush strokes in his quest for the essential truth of the music.

The justness of his rhythm and the delicacy and unselfconscious simplicity of his phrasing, which bespeaks the complex depth of his association with the music, can be heard in Op.90. Its songfulness takes wing, is subtly held back and relinquished, as Sheppard traces its coursing movement with avian flexibility but sure command. Wonderful playing. Lest one should concentrate on his rhythmic control and his digital surety and believe this to be a rather ironclad traversal I need to stress the pure lyricism of his playing but add that he refuses to distend phrases or to bloat these sonatas with the spurious. The depth proceeds from his total concentration on the verities of music making. This is very much the case with Op.101 where tone colours are exemplary in the opening movement and where timbral variety and structural control lead very naturally from the slow opening of the finale to its more pressing tempo.

For the Hammerklavier we find Sheppard’s resources devoted to his highly personal and concentrated exploration. The sense of organisation here is palpable, indeed remarkable; phrases sound progressive and inevitable. There’s no excessive lingering in the slow movement but there remains a powerful sense of phrasal freedom and space nonetheless. The rhythmic subtleties and the resilience of the playing are notable, the digital clarity in the fugal passages of the finale beyond reproach - astounding, in fact. The playing abjures what one might define as speculative, philosophic utterances as is indeed the case with Op 109. The delightfully sprung rhythm and clarity of the playing might tempt one to think Sheppard a cool player but his directness in the theme and variations finale here is not seen by him as a titanic tussle with extra-musical issues so much as rooted in musical problems and complexities and their proper resolution. His refusal to bathe in contemplative waters here, and throughout, is in accordance with his clear vision of the unsettled and the provisional in the writing.

If one can speak of a mood throughout Sheppard’s playing of the last sonatas then it’s something akin to agitation, a perpetually alive and intense vortex of feeling. He captures the brilliant dynamism of the writing through powerful digital command; behind this lies his intellectual control and behind this control lies a cogent and plausible perception of the panorama of Beethoven’s writing. This much is clear with Op.110 where we find playing that is vibrant and alive and intensely exciting – Sheppard, for all the sometimes gaunt drama is never one to underplay the manifold emotions in these sonatas. Again we find in the Adagio Sheppard’s characteristic intensity, a quicksilver, unsettled response that demands much of the performer.

And so to Op.111 where the dynamism that runs throughout the cycle courses through to the end. There is here a blistering grandeur of utterance allied to magnificent chordal intensity and precision. The Arietta is characterised with all his accustomed authority and perception; changes of mood are powerful and telling; again he makes no concession to those for whom the spiritual elides into the religiose. This is tactile, life affirming, deeply human playing. And yet it is also hugely affecting in its own terms bringing with it a sense of immensity and conquering spirit. It affirms Sheppard’s own journeying.

This is a cycle then of the highest quality. The booklet notes are Sheppard’s own. He plays on his Hamburg Steinway and it sounds magnificent. The sound captures its full range but is rather close. Which brings me to my only real criticism. The closeness of the Steinway to the microphones has also captured what I take to be air displacement when Sheppard pedals. It comes across as a small but persistent, sometimes quite loud, “whoosh.” It would be wrong of me to say that I didn’t find it an occasional irritant but it would be equally wrong  to suggest that it materially distracted me from Sheppard’s playing. That, needless to say, is of a truly elevated standard.

Jonathan Woolf

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