The Last Three Piano Sonatas
Sonata in C minor, D958 [31:12]
Sonata in A major, D959 [39:54]
Sonata in B flat major, D960 [47:12]
Allegretto in C minor, D915 [5:15]
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. live, 5 May 2010, Meany Theater, Seattle, USA
ROMÉO RECORDS 7283-4 [71:06 + 47:12]

Some time ago I had the good fortune to review Craig Sheppard’s splendid cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Since then, some more of his recordings have been favourably received here by colleagues, all of them, like the Beethoven sonatas, recorded live in recital at the Meany Theater in Seattle. I so admired Sheppard’s Beethoven that when the chance presented itself to review these performances of the last three Schubert piano sonatas I needed no second bidding.

These sonatas were all written in fairly quick succession in the last few months of Schubert’s life - between May and September 1828. To produce three such substantial masterpieces in such a short period of time is impressive enough as an achievement. But if you add in firstly the fact that he was mortally ill – he would be dead by mid-November – and, secondly, that in the last year of his life he produced a whole succession of other major works, including the String Quintet, the songs subsequently published as Schwanengesang, and the Mass in E flat then one can only marvel at his industry and invention.

The sonatas in question form, by pretty common consent, the pinnacle of Schubert’s portfolio of solo piano compositions. Indeed, they are among the peaks of the piano repertoire as a whole and, like the Ninth Symphony, suggest ways in which Schubert might have advanced the genre still further, not least in terms of expansiveness, had he lived longer. One important thing about them is that, notwithstanding the fact that they were composed not long before Schubert’s death, they are not, I believe, in any sense valedictory and woe betide any pianist who treats them as such and attempts to wrap the music in an autumnal cloak of farewell or regret. Happily, Craig Sheppard is far too intelligent and perceptive an artist to fall into that particular trap.

Sheppard’s Beethoven sonata recordings were issued under the title Beethoven: A Journey. I was reminded of that listening to these Schubert performances because hearing them as a series – and knowing that this is how they were presented to the audience in Seattle – allows one to appreciate how the music in each tends to feed off the others – a point that the pianist makes in his very good booklet note.

It seems to me that Sheppard has the full measure of these scores. He is excellent in the turbulent passages that feature particularly in D958 – but also in the other two works – and in such sections one appreciates the physical strength of his technique – and that he never forces the tone of his Hamburg Steinway piano. Rhythms are unfailingly executed crisply and accurately but, crucially, Sheppard is a discerning master of rubato. Schubert’s music so often requires just a little ‘give’ to make its expressive point, though this is down to the pianist’s intuition since it’s not written in the score. Sheppard consistently gets this aspect just right.

It’s the heavenly lyricism of Schubert’s late music that gives it such appeal. Mr Sheppard never overdoes the lyricism, making it maudlin; instead he lets the music breathe and sing, allowing it to unfold naturally. Thus, the serene theme of the Adagio movement in D958 is perfectly enunciated, with every chord or single note beautifully and thoughtfully weighted. In this movement Sheppard’s playing has great poise yet the occasional passages of more robust music are strongly projected.

The Andantino of D959 is a wonderful creation. Craig Sheppard refers to the “forlornness” of this music and this is how it comes across in his hands. The simplicity of his playing at the start allows the writing to speak most effectively. There is a strong and dramatic central section (3:08–5:00), which is projected powerfully. It provides a fine contrast with the preceding, withdrawn episode and when the subdued music returns for the closing section of the movement the fact that it follows this turbulent central passage gives the slow passages an added sadness. The finale of D959 is Schubert at his most winning and I really admired the lyrical grace that Sheppard brings to this music. His playing is full of light and shade, ensuring that his reading is a conspicuous success. Earlier, he’d been equally successful with the seemingly endless tarantella that forms the finale of D958. It seems to me that he judges the pacing here to perfection, giving the music sufficient space that it doesn’t sound unduly rushed yet, at the same time, imparting plenty of energy and momentum.

The performance of D960 is masterly. In the extended opening movement - 19:13 here – Sheppard is suitably reflective yet his pacing is just right – a consistent feature of all these performances – and so the music isn’t allowed to dawdle. I thought this was a wise and completely convincing reading of this heavenly movement. The Andante sostenuto that follows is otherworldly; time seems to be suspended in a good performance and this is a very good performance. Sheppard distils great atmosphere – surely a benefit of live recording - and displays expert control and a great feeling for the music. When, at 5:58, the opening material is reprised, his subtle touch is very special. I relished the delicacy of his fingering in the third movement while his description of the finale as “nonchalant and elegant” is highly appropriate. I’d hesitate to call his playing of it nonchalant for fear that might imply a superficiality, which certainly is not the case, though the playing is relaxed. But I’ll readily describe his pianism in this mainly genial movement as elegant.

The little C minor Allegretto is a good and thoughtful choice as an encore.

Textually, the performances are based on Martino Tirimo’s Wiener Urtext edition as well as the Henle and Peters editions. All repeats are observed.

The performances were given before a live audience but I should reassure readers that this audience, unlike some I have endured recently at concerts, is commendably silent and attentive; one senses that Sheppard held them in the palm of his hand and willed them to focus on Schubert. Even when listening through headphones I couldn’t detect any extraneous noises and there is a most welcome absence of coughs. Those for whom it is an issue ought to note that there is applause at the end of each work – and it’s quite vociferous – but I don’t find that a problem.

These are exceptionally fine and satisfying Schubert performances, which I have enjoyed greatly – and savoured. Sheppard is a perceptive and intelligent guide to these masterpieces and his playing and interpretations bespeak a deeply musical and thoughtful approach. I hope that others will enjoy these discs as much as I have done. Like his Beethoven sonatas, these are performances to live with. I see from the booklet that Sheppard’s recording of the complete solo piano music of Brahms is in the offing, again drawn from live recitals in Seattle. That is eagerly awaited.

John Quinn

Exceptionally fine and satisfying. Sheppard is a perceptive and intelligent guide.