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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Estampes (1903) [13:02]
Images - 1ère série (1905) [15:20]
Images - 2ème série (1907) [13:57]
12 Études (1915) [46:09]
Hommage à Haydn (1909) [3:07]
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. live, 15-16 April 2013, Meany Theater, Seattle
ROMÉO RECORDS 7299/7300 [42:19 + 49:16]

Not long after Craig Sheppard’s recording of the Preludes comes this twofer which contains performances of Estampes and Images – both series - that continue to prove the American to be technically exceptionally, stylistically perceptive, tonally colouristic and interpretatively superb. Where to start?
Let’s try Estampes where his pacing is unimpeachable and his sense of sonority and of arm weight, of colour and judicious pedalling are consistently rewarding aspects of his art. The wave-like imprecations of Jardins sous la pluie are splendidly realised, its rhythms calibrated with hypnotic allure. Only one thing very slightly dimmed my ardour and that’s not the pianist’s fault – the microphone placement is just a bit too close and one can hear pedalling or the piano’s action. I’ve noted this before in some of Sheppard’s live recordings at Meany Theater and gradually the placement has improved but it still sounds to me that the balance between immediacy of sound and of a just distance is still not quite there yet. Irrespective of this, the performance is still masterly.
Sheppard’s approach to Images similarly shows that he is not prepared to accept perceived orthodoxies in post-Gieseking recorded performance. A deep concern for structural matters is accompanied by clarity of articulation and by appropriate use of the pedal. There’s no hazy wash in Reflets dans l’eau. He, like many pianists, is somewhat slower – though often not by much – than Daniel Ericourt, who performed alongside and briefly knew Debussy (as Gieseking had not), and is also somewhat warmer as a tonalist – though this is also a reflection of the poor quality of the 1961-2 Ericourt recordings, which are on Ivory Classics 73006.
The Études reprise qualities of deftness, intellectual probity, and deep musical quality. Less startling than Ericourt in the first of the twelve, he remains droll, whilst he is tauter and less ‘dappled’ in the third. Rhythmical buoyancy is a constant feature of his performances – sample the fourth – and his crystalline finger clarity in the sixth is marvellously vivid; crystalline but not cold, precise but not unfeeling, this is music-making that honours but never parades. His pre-encore introduction of the Hommage à Haydn is typically unaffected and charming, and caps a captivating, musically honest and interpretatively elevated sequence of performances, ones that Debussians will want to hear.
Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John Quinn

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