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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op.87 (1950-51)
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. at two concerts in April 2015 at Meany Theater, Seattle
ROMÉO RECORDS 7315-16 [63:34 + 78:01]

Craig Sheppard is certainly not involved in frivolous recording schedules. He has explored, in a series of discs, some of the most profound areas of the repertoire – most have been reviewed here – and now turns to Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, Op.87. The resultant discs are an amalgamation of two concerts recorded in Meany Theater in Seattle in April 2015. He utilised, as I believe he always does, the Steinway D concert grand there. What’s not quite clear to me is whether he performed the whole 24 on both occasions, though it seems probable that he did.

Performances of this kind require mental and physical stamina. They also require an incisive mechanism and a sure awareness of the sheer range of expressive nuance the music demands – from sardonic to pastoral, organ voicings to French Overture, chorale to waltz, to children’s songs and more besides. Characterisation, and appropriate colours, whether airy tracery or pedal-pointed Mussorgskian drama are all part of a pianist’s arsenal in this extreme test of sophistication and simplicity.

Sheppard is not one for grand seigneurial lassitude, or indeed temporal latitude. He retains an intensely athletic sprung-rhythm and whilst properly sensitive to those richly slower preludes, is at pains to keep phraseology tautly elastic. He finds special colours in a marvelously articulated G major prelude, whilst vesting the succeeding E minor with a haunting quality that’s followed by an almost tentative fugue, one that incrementally gains amplitude. He finds playfulness scattered throughout, notably in the D major’s prelude but deals justly with the little fanfare figures of the A major’s fugue. He seems to relish the mischievous F sharp minor’s prelude and the contrast between the delicacy of the E major’s prelude and the rhythmic vitality of its fugue.

The music’s greatest depths – such as the reflective melancholy of the B flat minor – are in no way short-changed, nor are the sometimes gaunt, mysterious qualities to be found here, such as in the C minor. The beautifully calibrated voicings of the G minor and the declamatory brio of the concluding D minor all attest to a high level of communicative and technical commitment. Character, colour, rhythm, hand balancing and pedaling have all been wisely considered.

Naturally you’ll want to know about the elephant in the room: Tatiana Nikolaieva, whose recordings are benchmarks – the Melodiya 1987 and the later Hyperion being the two most commonly encountered. Without playing the age card Sheppard is a few years older than the Russian pianist was when she made the Melodiya set. In almost every movement he vests the music with greater rhythmic emphasis. But theirs are complementary approaches, hers a product of close study and the composer’s imprimatur. Sheppard, as he has shown elsewhere in his discography – the complete Beethoven sonatas, for instance - is unshackled by tradition. He is a clear-eyed exponent, marring elements of the romantic and objective traditions, and his approach here is hugely impressive.

Sheppard’s own booklet notes make for enlightening and engaging reading. No dry pedantry here. I am happy to report that Sheppard is being accorded the recording quality he deserves. In years gone by I always found the microphone placement too close, so that the piano’s action was sometimes intrusive. Here we have a fine recording, with a well-judged distance. It makes all the difference.

Jonathan Woolf



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