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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.
ROMÉO RECORDS 7322 [72:49]

Given over two nights at Craig Sheppard’s accustomed Meany Theater in Seattle, the city where he has lived and worked these many years, the resultant CD draws together Chopin’s two major sonatas, the Op.59 Mazurkas and the Fantasy, Op.49 which, despite a tracking glitch on the jewel case, lasts an ordinary span and not the sonata-sized 23-minutes advertised.

Sheppard’s Chopin is direct, unaffected, and thoroughly musical. Whereas others in live recital might trip uncomfortably over the inauguration of the rhythm into the first movement of the B flat minor, Sheppard moves naturally and with fluency. His chording is weighty but never overpoweringly forced, and always appropriately but richly scaled. His scherzo is rhythmically vivacious and the Funeral March itself full of full of a reserved nobility that feels wholly of a piece with his conception of the sonata as a whole. He doesn’t drive through the Presto finale in order to parade Arthur Rubinstein’s ‘wind over the grave’ associations. The B minor Sonata again fuses an acute perception as to structure and tempo relation with technical finesse and elegance of phrasing. There is no undue projection to the audience here and there are no quirks or extraneous gestures in the Largo, simply – if that’s the right word – an unselfconscious unfolding of the composer’s lyricism.

Between the two sonatas Sheppard programmed the Op.59 Mazurkas and they are most attractively played. They’re not driven, as in Ignaz Friedman’s famous recordings of the Mazurkas (though he never recorded Op.59) nor – to be specific – is Sheppard the kind of pianist to pursue Maryla Jonas’s coquetry in the A minor of this set. He rubati are more equable and poised. Thus, the music is less personalised and less flirtatious but wholly of a piece with Sheppard’s more noble mien in Chopin. He began the evening with a first-class performance – technically and expressively – of the Fantasy.

Sheppard invariably writes his own booklet notes and has done so again to our advantage; incidentally the disc’s title, The Essence of an Iron Will – which sounds a bit Nietzsche to me (but makes sense in the context of the essay) – is Sheppard’s own coining.

This brings us to the only real area of concern and that’s the recording quality. I’ve noted in the past in my reviews that some of Sheppard’s earlier Roméo discs were so closely miked that one could hear air displacement from his pedaling. This has got much better of late, but I wonder in this release if the mike has been optimally sited. Sometimes the treble can be strident and there can be a spread in the bass. It’s by no means an impediment to appreciating Sheppard’s impressive performances but I think a more sympathetic acoustic would have reflected his splendid playing that much more.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John Quinn



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