Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750) The Six Keyboard Partitas, Vol. 1
Clavierübung 1 (1731):
Partita I in B-flat major BWV 825 (1726)
Partita II in C minor BWV 826 (1727)
Partita III in A minor BWV 827 (1725-27)
Partita IV in D major BWV 828 (1729)
Sergey Schepkin (piano)
rec. Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, Massachusetts 18, 21 March 1995
ONGAKU RECORDS 024-108 [66:08]

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750) The Six Keyboard Partitas, Vol. 2
Clavierübung 1 (1731):
Partita V in G major BWV 829 (1730)
Partita VI in E minor BWV 830 (1723-30)
Four Duets (from Clavierübung III, 1739) BWV 802-805
Overture in the French Style [Partita in B minor] BWV 831 (1731-35)
Sergey Schepkin (piano)
rec. Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, Massachusetts 18, 21 March 1995
ONGAKU RECORDS 024-109 [73:47]

These recordings follow on from a performance of the six Partitas in New York’s Weill Recital Hall in January 1995, and forms part of Sergey Schepkin’s now not inconsiderable Bach catalogue with the Ongaku label. His Goldberg Variations have certainly retained my affection, and while I’ve found myself sparring a little with his Well-Tempered Clavier more often than not I have to admit that, on going back for more, any problems I might have imagined were indeed just that, problems that I had been generating in my own flawed memories of the recordings, and issues almost invariably refuted by the realities when listening properly.

Needless to say, when the Bach Partitas became available I was at the front of what was probably not such a long queue to obtain copies from our indefatigable and avuncular MWI editor Len. My fear is indeed that Mr. Schepkin, being less well known on this side of the Atlantic, is likely to be somewhat underrated. Yes, I deeply enjoy having lots of different versions of Bach’s keyboard works on a variety of recordings, but should I end up stranded on a desert island and discover that the only ones which had survived along with the FedEx box and the punctured football were those of Sergey Schepkin, then I would be more than delighted to have his playing for company.

Bach’s Partitas have had some notable recordings, and those of you who are already lucky enough to have Angela Hewitt on Hyperion will probably neither desire nor need to look much further – these are indeed highly satisfying recordings. If you want somewhere to categorise Schepkin in these pieces then, generally speaking, his playing is closer to Glenn Gould, but with warmer phrasing and a gentler, less brittle melodic touch. He avoids use of the pedal, and if there is any pedalling then it is pretty well disguised. Ornamentation is widespread but mostly judicious and certainly well considered. Schepkin mentions this aspect of his performances in the booklet, referring to the editions used in making decisions on this aspect of the music, and with the starting point of such embellishments being “an important means of expression [for Bach], as well as a part of the structure.” Schepkin devises some of his own ornamentation as well as following established and documented Baroque practice, but the essential overall feel is that the central message of the music is kept largely undistorted – more fortified and emphasised by certain gestures, none of which I felt were unidiomatic or disturbingly elaborate. Where witty passing notes or scales appear between some leaps I can only say a smile was brought to my face, such is the sense of freedom and joy this can bring. As well as being a fan of Glenn Gould, Schepkin names Ton Koopman as an influence, and these are the kinds of controlled improvisatory additions which make Koopman’s organ playing such a delight. The only places where things become a bit mad are where fast music and heavily ornamented notes clash, such as in the final Gigue of BWV 829 which is still great fun, but almost loses its coherence where the ornaments overlap.

My own reference in these pieces on piano has most frequently been that of Murray Perahia, whose mellifluous playing available on the Sony label is hard to beat. Schepkin falls somewhere in between Perahia and Gould in approach, providing a crisper articulation and drier touch than the former and, if you will excuse the term, a greater sense of lubrication than the latter. Schepkin doesn’t try to turn these pieces into dramatic and overly romantic vehicles for pianistic expressiveness, but neither does he shy away from the human warmth to be found in Bach’s gentler and more intimate moments. Those central Sarabandes which form the emotional heart of each of the Partitas are played with restraint and understated refinement by Schepkin. He has great fun with Bach’s moments of greater abandon, holding a consistent tempo but creating a wonderful sense of dance in such finales as the Capriccio which rounds off BWV 826. Even when the dynamic is high Schepkin’s playing avoids becoming heavy, keeping a sense of shape and lilting movement through the faster numbers, and keeping up a variety of accents and subtleties of articulation even when driving hard.

The piano sound on these Ongaku discs is very good indeed. Schepkin plays a Steinway, which pre-supposes a fairly bright and brilliant sound, but the detail and accuracy in the playing is met with an attractive and non-fatiguing listening experience. The instrument is set in a pleasant but not overly reverberant acoustic, and the overall sonic standard is equal to anything I’ve heard on almost any other label. Bach wrote these pieces “for the pleasurable diversion of music lovers”, by which he meant players as much as audiences, the Clavierübung intended to have as much if not more an instructional and educational value than for concert performance. Schepkin certainly communicates that sense of pleasure. Just take the infectious opening Præambulum of the Partita V which opens volume 2, where space and air between the notes is maintained even where the runs are flashing and darting all over the place. If this doesn’t raise a smile and make you want to hear more then I believe you should take medical advice. I wouldn’t say Schepkin is particularly lightweight, but compared to Roger Woodward he can certainly be counted as pretty far removed from the dramatic and revelatory/revolutionary school of playing. Schepkin doesn’t pound out or linger over the remarkable Toccata which opens Partita VI, remaining within his own idiom and providing plenty of excitement without going too far into ‘romantic’ territory. Schepkin admits to seeing Bach as a composer whose music has plenty of romantic content, but he maintains a comparably sober framework, creating a degree of permissible elasticity without stretching or searching too far into emotional depths which may legitimately be sought, but which church musician Bach would probably have found a bit OTT. Schepkin’s eloquence goes as far as his use of the piano as a ‘super-clavichord’, with all the benefits of the dynamic and expressive possibilities this brings, but resisting any gauze of added symbolism or too much forward-looking experimentation. The added bonuses of the Clavierübung III duets and the Overture in the French Style BWV 831 are a further joy.

Don’t be put off by the woefully old-fashioned looking covers for these releases. Sergey Schepkin is one of those pianists who may be more under the radar than others, but whose playing is the kind which lasts. Once you’ve heard these recordings you won’t want to give them up easily, and each time you come back to them you’ll feel a slight frisson – good stuff, play it again, why have I neglected them for so long: those kinds of thoughts – the kind which make you keep things when moving house, or make you reluctant to lend them even to the best of friends. Don’t feel guilty, the only reason you will have neglected these is that there is so much else to hear. These Partita discs and indeed all of the other Schepkin recordings on Ongaku have their own little field of gravity around them however, and will always bring you back, sooner or later.

Dominy Clements