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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
The Essence of an Iron Will
Fantasy in F minor, Op 49 (1841) [12:22]
Sonata in B flat minor, Op 35, ‘Funeral March’ (1837) [22:43]
Three Mazurkas Op 59 (1845) [10:02]
Sonata in B minor, Op 58 (1844) [26:33]
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. live, 22 & 23 February, 2017, Meany Theater, Seattle.
ROMEO RECORDS 7322 [72:49]

You might be tempted to think that the title of this album, The Essence of an Iron Will, was dreamed up by someone in the marketing department. Not so. The title is not only Craig Sheppard’s own but also is very apt. As usual, he has authored the booklet notes for his disc and he points out that the name of the place in Poland where Chopin was born, Żelazowa Wola, translates as ‘iron will’. This, he says sums up in many ways his feelings about the composer. As he says, Chopin had a difficult life in many ways, not least due to poor health and his exile from Poland after 1830. Notwithstanding all the difficulties that fate put his way he produced a great volume of masterly compositions, mainly for the piano. Quite a lot of Chopin’s music is beautiful and delicate but Craig Sheppard here plays a programme of pieces that, for the most part, display a strong backbone.

The Fantasy in F minor may only last for some 12 minutes (contrary to the timing given on the back of the CD) but in all other respects it’s a big piece. To begin with the music is fairly modest in tone but soon Chopin injects considerable intensity. Sheppard comments that the piece has “indeterminate form” and in a way his performance emphasises this – in a good way - because he plays with great freedom. I admire the strength and drive that he brings to much of the music but equally admirable is the imagination that he brings to his phrasing and delivery of the Fantasy’s more lyrical passages, such as the one around 7:20. This is a very fine opener for his recital.

He also offers the last two of Chopin’s three piano sonatas. The first movement of the so-called ‘Funeral March’ sonata is impressive. I like the excellent momentum that Sheppard generates in the quick music and also the contrasting way he delivers the sostenuto sections. He omits the exposition repeat, which is a pity since he plays the exposition so very well. The scherzo also goes well; there’s plenty of energy. I especially like the completely convincing rubato that Sheppard employs in the easeful trio. The slow movement, the famous Marche funèbre, is patrician yet powerful. Sheppard doesn’t overplay the emotion in this movement; he gets it just right, conveying the solemnity without letting the music become overwrought. The second subject is limpid and graceful – in the episodes that are concerned with this material the playing is very lovely and perfectly poised. All repeats are taken. Chopin’s finale is a seemingly endless whirl of notes and there’s no let-up for the pianist. Sheppard’s expert articulation ensures clarity despite the welter of notes.

His account of the Third Sonata is no less successful. In the first movement, he doesn’t take the exposition repeat and, frankly, I don’t blame him; the exposition is extended as it is and the repeat, even if specified by the composer, risks unbalancing both the movement and, by extending the movement significantly, the sonata as a whole. I love the sense of fantasy that Sheppard brings to the second subject. The scherzo, a vivacious affair, is very well done. Sheppard takes the slow movement attacca. His beautifully moulded performance of the Largo is very fine; the poetry comes out effortlessly. In a highly impressive performance I took special pleasure from the last 13 bars; here Sheppard draws the movement to a gentle, poetic close in a way that’s deeply satisfying. The finale is marked Presto, ma non tanto and the qualification is important because if the pianist is tempted to take the music too swiftly articulation problems become a risk. I think Craig Sheppard judges the pace expertly. The music is clear at all times yet he generates exciting momentum. The last two pages are full of musical fireworks and Sheppard is rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation.

In between the two sonatas Sheppard places the three Op 59 Mazurkas. That’s intelligent programme planning because we need a bit of a breather between the two substantial sonatas. These elegant Mazurkas are just the job, especially in such nicely-turned performances.

This is a very fine Chopin disc which I enjoyed very much. Craig Sheppard’s technical accomplishment is as great as one would expect at this level. But what has regularly drawn me to this pianist’s recordings, apart from the technical excellence, is the sense that no matter how spontaneous the playing may sound he has considered – and, indeed, re-considered – the music very carefully; nothing is ever taken for granted. That quality is again evident on this disc.

The two sonatas are both followed by enthusiastic applause but otherwise the audience is commendably disciplined. The engineering was undertaken by Dmitriy Lipay of the Seattle Symphony. I think he’s done a fine job. The sound of Craig Sheppard’s Hamburg Steinway is presented very pleasingly with a nice richness in the lower register and just the right degree of brilliance in the treble.

The notes are by the artist himself and, as usual, are thoughtful and readable.

John Quinn



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