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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Klavierübung, Part 1

The Six Partitas for Keyboard (1726-1731)
  • Partita for Keyboard #1 in B Flat Major, BWV 825
  • Partita for Keyboard #2 in C minor, BWV 826
  • Partita for Keyboard #3 in A minor, BWV 827
  • Partita for Keyboard #4 in D Major, BWV 828
  • Partita for Keyboard #5 in G Major, BWV 829
  • Partita for Keyboard #6 in E minor, BWV 830
Craig Sheppard, piano
Recorded Live, Meany Theatre, Seattle, Washington, November 2005
Released May 2006
Roméo Records 7248/9 2CDs: 68:07, 70:45
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If you've ever wondered what Glenn Gould might sound like without eccentricities, the Philadelphia born and raised Craig Sheppard is the answer. Gould's famous qualities of propulsion, contrapuntal mastery, pin-point articulation and perfect synthesis of instinct and intellect are on full display in Sheppard's interpretation of the Bach Keyboard Partitas. Most significant, Sheppard is like Gould in elevating secondary musical lines to an equal status with the primary lines without any loss of primary line projection; this attribute gives the dialogue a different nature that is consistently compelling and illuminating.

Are there any significant differences between Sheppard and Gould? Definitely. Sheppard has a more lyrical bent than Gould and his tempos (although quick) are more mainstream than Gould's. Further, Sheppard does not employ staccato as frequently or as strongly as Gould. As for Gould's infamous vocalizing, there's none of that from Sheppard.

Mr. Sheppard graduated from the Curtis Institute and Julliard School, experiencing his New York performance debut in 1972. Moving to England after winning the silver medal at the 1973 Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, Sheppard developed a strong reputation there and often played for the BBC during his twenty year stint on the other side of the pond. In 1993, he joined and remains on the faculty of the University of Washington as Professor of Piano while still keeping a very active schedule of concert performances in the United States, Europe and Asia.

I'd like to utilize the Partita #2 in C minor as an indicator of Sheppard's style in Bach. The work begins with a three-part Sinfonia that I consider a French Overture with a difference. Generally, a French Overture has a double-dotted introduction followed by a fugal section. In Bach's Sinfonia, the Grave adagio and Allegro fugue are separated by a highly lyrical Andante full of emotional longing. Sheppard offers a fantastic rendition of the Sinfonia with a forceful and regal introduction, his Andante constantly searches for answers and the elevation of secondary voices in the fugal section is thrilling.

The Allemande is similar to the Sinfonia's Andante in emotional depth and lyricism, and Sheppard again hits his target as he continues his quest for truth and justice; the concentration of his energy is amazing. Bach's Sarabande is one of his most gorgeous, and Sheppard certainly brings out all its beauty; I am again struck by Sheppard's tremendous focus on resolution of all musical arguments. In the Courante and Rondeau, Sheppard gives us two of his many examples of great propulsion, and his Capriccio sounds like a continuous stream of speeding bullets reaching their mark.

The Roméo Records soundstage is excellent – neither overly reverberant nor clinical. Sheppard's outstanding detail of each musical line is well captured by the sonics, and the depth of sound is admirable.

Don's Conclusions: Sheppard's is one of the greatest-ever recordings of Bach's Partitas for Keyboard. Sheppard is a man on mission who uses and needs Bach's music to solve the questions that have evaded us throughout history. In his interpretations, Sheppard always gives full concentration to this goal and never allows for detours. That's Gould also. So I give Sheppard's set the highest recommendation as it joins the top echelon of piano versions of the Partitas including the Gould on Sony, Tureck on Philips, Rubsam on Naxos and Rangell on Dorian. As an aside, Sheppard has also recorded the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas to great acclaim. Yes, Sheppard is a special pianist who demands your attention.

Copyright © 2007, Don Satz