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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 870-893 (1738-1742) 
Sergey Schepkin (piano)
rec. 12-13 January 1998, 24 November 1999, New England Conservatory, Jordan Hall, Boston, MA. DDD
ONGAKU RECORDS 024-115 [70:51 + 73:01]
Experience Classicsonline

Five years on from his debut recording of the Goldberg Variations, and the booklet notes pick up on the conversation which Sergey Schepkin was having on the subject of Bach on the piano with J. Quentin Parker. This interview device for booklet notes is very useful when it is the ideas of the performer which count most, in music which is so well known that it almost runs the risk of becoming aural wallpaper. Schepkin does however go into quite some detail with the inner mechanics of the music, and the reasons for some of his artistic decisions based on pre-existing historical knowledge.

I was inspired to request this set for review after hearing some samples over the internet, and reading the booklet notes I now know part of the reason the music seemed to speak to me so directly. Schepkin’s approach to the Well-Tempered Clavier owes more to that of Sviatoslav Richter than to Glenn Gould, and it is this set on RCA GD 60949 which has been one of my desert island recordings since I was a teenager, having first bought it as a Melodiya box set on LPs. I have to admit preferring Richter’s Book I to his Book II, but his is still my reference in this music on piano.

In Schepkin’s own words, "I tried to be true to Bach’s style the way I understand it, to Bach’s forms and textures the way I hear them, and to Bach’s spirit the way I feel it." There are inevitable romantic associations when hearing this music played on the piano, but these are often musical/semantic impressions based on the sound of the instrument – hopefully more so than in that of the playing. Schepkin admits "Bach’s music is expressive and romantic!" He never falls into what one might call ‘romanticism’ however, and the musical message of each prelude and fugue is unencumbered with irritating rubati or other mannerisms one would associate with a later age. I don’t think we need to be too precious about a ‘romantic’ approach to Bach’s music. Anyone who could father 20 children had to have some romantic spirit, and so it is the overall effect of the music which is most important – assuming, as Schepkin has, the performing practice and expectations of the time are taken into consideration.

Returning to Richter’s set; I began by asking myself why I felt it any less good than his Book I. The recording is a little less vibrant for some reason, and this is an advantage which Schepkin’s recording has as a given – the Ongaku sound is truly excellent. It’s also nothing to do with preferring Book I to Book II, as I’ve come across with some colleagues in the past. I’ve always felt Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier to be underrated, and listening to Richter with fresh ears I find his colour, voicing and phrasing still to be both impressively and easily virtuosic. There is however a sense that the enveloping warmth which invites you to inhabit Book I like a favourite set of clothes is a little further removed in Book II. This is something hard to put into words, but the fierceness of attack seems that much more brutal, the more gentle movements just a fraction more superficial. This not always the case, there is still much wonder and beauty to be had throughout, and this is just my subjective impression when comparing the two books.

Not having Schepkin’s Book I, yet, I cannot comment on any differences between these two. Schepkin does outline the essential differences between the two books however, and as they are 20 years apart in J.S. Bach’s oeuvre there are a number of stylistic developments which makes Book II less clear-cut as an interpretative whole. Without going into too much detail, Schepkin is attuned to the more galant and extra-baroque expressive features in the music, and to the advances in counterpoint which takes Book II that much further than Book I in terms of sophistication and an expansion beyond the more ‘liturgical’ background which infuses the earlier set. The more strictly rhythmic pieces such as the Prelude and Fugue XV in G are taken with impeccable regularity, and the expressive freedoms which Schepkin allows himself elsewhere are entirely idiomatic and part of the organic flow of the music. Taking something like the Prelude and Fugue XVII in A flat, this gorgeous pairing has little lifts in the flow of the tempo throughout, some give-and-take which allows the lines to sing urbanely. The essential flow of the music isn’t stretched or pushed in macro terms, but the internal recurrence of certain statements are given their full value – removing machine-like regularity without overheating or allowing any kind of sagging in each movement as a whole.

Is Schepkin the flawless Bach interpreter? From where I stand, these things all come down to a matter of taste. You may find his opening Prelude in C too slow, but just give the music a chance to convince you and that sensation soon vanishes. The same has been true of every case in which I’ve started out with a ‘?’ from this set, and these are few and far between in any case. In short, if you like Sviatoslav Richter’s Russian directness, and feel you’d like it combined with, say, Andras Schiff’s refinement of touch and warmth of expression, then you will most certainly respond to the playing of Sergey Schepkin. For me, he fills the gap left by those elusive shortcomings I’ve always felt from Richter’s Book II; and that is saying a great deal.

Dominy Clements


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