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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (1742)
Sergey Schepkin (piano)
rec. 15 January 1995, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA. DDD
ONGAKU 024-107 [71:53]
Experience Classicsonline

I hadn’t heard of Sergey Schepkin before requesting this disc for review, but my reasons for doing so were based on hearing some sound samples over the internet of his ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ recordings. Russian-born Schepkin has performed widely as soloist and chamber musician since his New York debut at the Weill Recital Hall in 1993, and this 1995 recording was his debut release as a recording artist.
Since it has been around for a while, I had a look online to see what others had said on this recording. There are the usual acclaims printed close to ‘Buy This CD’ buttons, which can always be taken as selective, but most of the independent voices seem to be positive as well, some citing this recording as their favourite out of the vast selection on offer.
There have been criticisms of course. Schepkin plays all of the repeats, which is arguably either necessary, or a dry and over-academic waste of time. This is however an essential part of Schepkin’s approach to ornamentation: in his own words, ‘they offer the performer the possibility of reading the same text differently... a chance to make the sunbeams play in the facets of a diamond.’ Baroque practise allowed virtuoso musicians the leeway for improvisatory embellishment of the music on the repeat, and Schepkin is determined to continue this tradition to the full. This is part of his approach to playing Bach on the piano – seeing the instrument as a ‘“superharpsichord”: an instrument with clear and crisp sound, but one which allows for literally millions of degrees of touch and subtle change in sonority.’ This is true, but I know Russianness in piano playing when I hear it, and Schepkin is certainly not shy of building up quite a head of steam when the mood and the music takes him – this is no somnolent Goldberg. He is also quite happy to turn the sonority of the instrument to his own hand, transposing some of the repeats up an octave for variety, and presumably in emulation of the upper manual on a two-manual harpsichord. 
Rather than defend Schepkin against the kind of critics who will always be around somewhere, I am quite happy to give my own opinion. Having had my ears and musical spirit bashed around by Burkard Schliessmann  not so very long ago, I am pleased to be able to inform you that this recording is much more up my street. Schepkin’s tempi are compact and stable, with plenty of lightness and variety, but without extremes in terms of either overambitious swiftness or tragically mannered and funereal slowness. He cites the ubiquitous Glenn Gould as an influence and a musician he admires enormously, but Schepkin’s Goldberg is no kind of pale imitation of Gould’s glories. Agreed, he sometimes points his articulation in comparable ways to that grand old master, showing his awareness that the positioning of the ends of notes can be as important as their attack. Far from remaining limited by the ‘melody + accompaniment’ criticism offered elsewhere, I can hear plenty of equality in the counterpoint, and plenty of expressive meaning in the secondary voices. As previously mentioned, the more energetic variations clatter along with tremendous gusto, but these passages serve to highlight more the contrasts in some of the beautiful effects in the more lyrical variations. Schepkin’s ornamentation sounds quite natural to me. He is quite liberal and free with his embellishments, but these never seem to distort the flow or shape of the original melody: in other words, they remain in the service of the music and the composer, which is the way it should be.
Yes, there are many, in some cases too many recordings of the Goldberg Variations around, but I would be more than happy to recommend Sergey Schepkin’s recording as one of those high on the shortlist for any collection of this work on piano. The sound quality is very good, capturing those all important nuances well. Schepkin’s ‘lion of the piano’ loudness may take a little adjusting to in some variations, but this is all part of the package, and I’m not making any claim for this as definitive – no such recording exists. The Holy Grail in this music is not so much the end result, but the journey of discovery by both performer and listener. I’ve enjoyed this particular journey very much indeed, and I’ll be glad to be able to take it frequently in future.
Dominy Clements

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