Sample Clips (30 seconds)
International Record Review (June 2013)
Preludes, Books 1 and 2. Les soirs illumines par l'ardeur du charbon. Craig Sheppard (piano).
Romeo Records 7297 (full price, 1 hour 20 minutes). Website www.romeorecords.com Producer/Engineer Dmitriy Lipay. Producer Ron Mannarino.
Date Live performances at The Meany Theater, Seattle in 2012.
Having given us, in recent years, outstanding recordings of the sonatas of Beethoven and of major keyboard works by Bach, the American pianist Craig Sheppard now vouchsafes us a superb set of the complete Debussy Preludes.
The musical distance thus travelled is not as great as might at first appear: it was Edmund Rubbra who first explained to me the underlying contrapuntal mastery in Debussy's music, which can truly be revealed only if the pianist has a mastery of chording and voice-leading — so often, Debussy's piano music is submerged beneath a wash of barely controlled use of the sustaining pedal. Not that this technical aspect of the piano should be ignored; it has to be used intelligently, somewhat sparingly, if the full extent of the composer's genius is to be revealed, but (as so often in these matters) the one connecting link between Bach, Beethoven and (in this case) Debussy is the ground-breaking originality of Liszt.
These matters were consistently brought home to me on hearing this deeply impressive recording. Curiously, the only other pianist in recent years who has made a similar impression is another Leeds Competition prizewinner — Andrew Brownell, who, like Sheppard (in 1972), also came second in the competition (in 2006), and whose performance of the Preludes in London last year was superb in every conceivable regard.
Sheppard's booklet notes begin with a reference to Bach, so he too — like Rubbra — has divined the essence of Debussy's creativity, but it is in the extraordinary combination of individual characterization and overall construction of these pieces (why they are in the order the composer placed them, especially) that Sheppard is so successful. Technically, he has no peer, and interpretatively he is sufficiently self-effacing not to allow anything other than what is on the printed page to come between composer and listener. In addition — by choosing the fine edition of these works by Roy Howat — in terms of scholarship and his deep insight into these pieces the result is a recording which assuredly is virtually definitive for our age.
As with his other recordings on the Romeo label, Sheppard's performances were recorded live, which further demonstrate the measure of his artistry. In terms of concentration and spontaneity, these are quite outstanding accounts, particularly impressive being the characteristics of the differing texturalizations in 'Les sons et les parfums tournent dans lair du soir' — this is pianism of a high order; 'Puck' is utterly delightful (without overdoing it), a foil to 'La cathedrale engloutie' (again, quite outstandingly well judged), but in truth I could point out similar felicities in each one of these performances.
The Romeo engineers are fully experienced with this artist, his piano and the performing venue; the resultant sound is therefore excellent, with the consequence that, time and again, in hearing these performances, I found myself mentally applauding Sheppard. This is, without question, the playing of a true master pianist. The concluding track, the 'encore', could not have been better chosen: it is Debussy's last solo piano piece, dating from 1917, Les soirs illumines par l'ardeur du charbon, after which listeners regretfully must take their leave of this exceptional musicianship.