This pair of CDs, released at the end of 2013, anticipates the fifteenth anniversary of Roméo Records in 2014. With this set the label notches up its 100th disc. It’s appropriate that Craig Sheppard should be the artist with which Roméo Records reaches this landmark for he has been one of their most important and consistently excellent artists over the years.
Just a few months ago I gave a warm welcome to a Debussy recital by Craig Sheppard in which he offered the complete Préludes. Now he plays a further generous selection of Debussy’s solo piano music, recorded once more live in concert and at his usual venue in Seattle. These latest performances were given some six months after the performances of the Préludes.
The most substantial offering here is the set of twelve studies that Debussy wrote towards the end of his life. Behind the apparently dry title - did Debussy ever write anything ‘dry’? - lies a good deal of fine, colourful and inventive music. Indeed, there is nothing academic about these pieces and I’m sure Debussy could easily have dreamed up descriptive titles for many of them had he been so inclined. The very first Étude - Pour les cinq doigts - dispels any suggestion of academic fustiness. Au contraire; Debussy starts with a real tease in the shape of a childishly simple five-note figure but within seconds his imagination has taken wing and from this oh-so-basic material he constructs a dexterous, inventive study. This sets the standard for what is to follow: Debussy may challenge the technique of pianists in these Études but he also challenges their wit, imagination and flair. In Craig Sheppard we have a pianist who is fully able to surmount all these challenges.
So, for example, he realises expertly what Debussy called the ‘disconcerting sonorities’ of Pour les sixtes and he displays great virtuosity in the whirling music of Pour les huit doigts. In Pour les agréments I appreciated the variety of colour and the dexterity of his playing and I loved the witty, lively account of Pour les notes répétées. By contrast the study that follows, Pour les sonoritiés opposées, frequently demands a delicate touch and Sheppard supplies this, together with an exceptional feel for pianistic colouring, in a super performance of the piece. The penultimate study, Pour les arpèges composées offers the pianist the chance to produce some voluptuous textures and Sheppard plays it marvellously. This performance of the complete Études strikes me as an unqualified success.
The first half of the programme is equally pleasing and satisfying. Sheppard, as usual, provides his own booklet notes and he says that Cloches à travers les feuilles (Images, Book II) ‘provides a kaleidoscope of influences.’ A successful performance also requires the pianist to produce a kaleidoscope of colours and that’s what Sheppard provides, producing some expertly judged sonorities, both loud and soft. His playing is most imaginative - and skilful. Even better, if anything, is Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut. This music, says Sheppard, ‘inhabits a world where time and space are suspended’ and he’s as good as his word. In an admirably subtle performance he displays a lovely touch, investing the music with poetry and mystery. In his traversal of Poissons d’or, which concludes the set, the listener can almost see the goldfish darting around the pool.
The performances of Images Book I are just as good. The music of Hommage à Rameau should be full of refined elegance, poise and order; it is here. A very different type of pianism is required for Mouvements. This is all about energy and excellent rhythmic articulation and I admire the way Craig Sheppard achieves this without sacrificing tonal quality. There are many felicitous touches in his performance of Estampes, notably in the second of the three pieces, La Soirée dans Grenade. Here there’s admirable delicacy of touch combined with flexibility. Listening to this piece or any other of Debussy’s musical evocations of Spain it seems remarkable that, so far as is known, he visited the country but once - and then on just a day trip.
As an encore to the programme Sheppard plays a delightful miniature, Hommage à Haydn and he prefaces this with a brief but engaging spoken introduction.
These recordings are the product of two live concerts. There’s applause at the end of each set of pieces but otherwise the audience is commendably silent. The sound is very good, giving a realistic impression of Sheppard’s Steinway. As I mentioned earlier, Craig Sheppard provides his own programme note, as is his wont. As ever, these are readable and knowledgeable. The scholarship extends to the music itself: Sheppard has used the authoritative Oeuvres Complètes edition published by Durand-Costallat but he has clearly not taken these scholarly versions for granted and he has made a few minor textual amendments, as he mentions in the booklet. Many listeners may not register these changes but it’s good to know that the artist has thought deeply about the music he’s playing as well as delivering the music with consistent virtuosity and evident empathy for Debussy’s unique sound-world.
This is a most distinguished and enjoyable Debussy recital.