Sample Clips (30 seconds)
Estampes. Etudes. Images. Hommage à Haydn
Romeo 7299/300 (92' DDD)
In what looks like the continuation of a complete Debussy cycle (Craig Sheppard has already recorded the Préludes), the second two-disc volume offers the 12 Etudes, Estampes and both books of Images. The performances are vivid and characterful at every level, a wake-up call to an alternative point of view, to a more familiar misty-eyed evasion. A key to this approach — one of a very personal conviction — comes in Sheppard's fine accompanying essay, where he speaks of 'a gently delineated haze...along with a clarity of vision (the two are not mutually exclusive)' becoming the hallmarks of his style.
Clarity of vision certainly; and if there are times when he can sound more forceful than subtle (Etude No 8), his conjuring of a bleak rather than opalescent poetic world is superbly commanding and authoritative. Even the central section of 'Pour les accords' (for Sheppard 'one of the most beautiful and delicate things Debussy ever wrote') cannot tempt him away from a clear-sighted, even remorseless vision. In Estampes, 'Pagodes' is more animé than moderato, and in 'La soirée dans Grenade' a pianissimo subito direction cannot lure him into whispered confidences. But what eerie desolation he achieves in the final descending autumnal swirl of 'Cloches à travers les feuilles', and what enviable poise in the following 'Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut'. His encore, prefaced by a witty speech, of Hommage à Haydn is more spiky than affectionate yet entirely convincing in its own entirely individual terms. These are live performances and an amalgamation of two brilliantly recorded recitals given in Seattle's Meany Theatre early in 2013. Seattle is blessed indeed at having such a thrilling and audacious artist in its midst.
International Record Review
Estampes. Images, Series 1 and 2. Etudes. Hommage a Haydn.
Craig Sheppard (piano).
Remeo Records 7299-7300 (special price, two discs, 1 hour 31 minutes). Website www.romeorecords.com. Producer/Egnineer Dmitriy Lipay. Date Live performances in the Meany Theater, Seattle in April 2013
Comparison: Gieseking (EMI Classics) 5 65855-2 (1953-54, four discs)
It is sometimes the case that recordings which combine exceptional musical and technical merit command relatively brief reviews, for little can be said other than words of consistent praise. So it is here, but rather than bring my comments to too soon a conclusion, I feel it is necessary to explain just why recordings by this master pianist and great interpretative artist deserve the widest possible acclaim.
Debussy's piano music poses immense challenges in many areas of interpretation and technical demands, and whilst the composer's personality is identifiable in almost every bar, it is surely true that, like the piano music of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, Debussy never repeated himself. Consequently, a 'one-size-fits-all' approach (which many highly praised Debussy specialists adopt, making it convenient for critics) is not appropriate, and Craig Sheppard, on the basis of this pair of CDs (and his earlier set of the 24 Préludes, also on Roméo, reviewed in June 2013), comprehensively understands that. Thankfully, he has the complete and utter technical command that only the greatest pianists possess (one has merely to hear his account of 'Soirée dans Grenade', where the 'Leger et lointain' sections are scarcely believable, and the rhythmic play across three staves is truly fine). But again and again, on these two CDs, I asked myself whether I had heard finer accounts of the work in question — and found myself searching for Gieseking and Casadesus LPs (and 78s!), anxious to compare the refinement and understanding of these splendid artists, into which category Sheppard undoubtedly comes. Suffice it to say (for those who know), Sheppard's account of lardins sous la pluie' is in the Gieseking class.
The underlying strength of Sheppard's playing is founded upon his understanding of the inherent contrapuntal nature of Debussy's music, so often ignored by those to whom the liberal application of the sustaining pedal will apply a welcome balm to the more demanding passages in this music, and, in the process, misrepresent the composer's intentions. Nowhere is Shepherd's strength more finely encountered than in his set of the 12 Etudes, where he offers a master-class in how to play this music — most especially Nos. 5, 6 and 8, 'Pour les octaves', 'Pour les huit doigts' and 'Pour les agréments', which are astonishingly good, but it truly is impossible to pick one item above another.
In terms of sheer re-creative musicianship, therefore, these recordings are in the highest class. The recording quality is very good, but I should have liked the microphone(s?) on the first CD to have been placed just two feet or so further from the body of the instrument, for at what one might term normal listening volume the sound is a shade (but no more) drier than one might wish, so I suggest listening at a somewhat lower level than usual. But this comment in no way debars this issue from an Outstanding grading. Sheppard provides his own notes, which are excellent. More than once, on playing these discs, did I have to remind myself that these recordings were made 'live': they offer musical experiences of a consistently impeccable standard, unencumbered by any audience noise.