CD 1 Sample Clips (30 seconds) (Listen to CD 2)
International Record ReviewAnnées de pèlerinage - Première annee, 'Suisse', S160; Deuxième année, 'Italie', S161
Craig Sheppard (piano)
Remoe Records 7289/90 (full price, two discs, 1 hour 34 minutes). Website www.romeorecords.com
Producer Ron Mannarino. Producer/Engineer Dmitriy Lipay. Date September 2010
Chamayou (Naive) V5260 (2011)
Lortie (Chandos) CHAN10662
(2010, two discs, rev. Apr 2011)
Apres une lecture du Dante, S161, No. 7:
Le Guay (Accord) 476 4244 (2010, rev. Nov 2011)
Craig Sheppard returned to the US in 1993 after a long residency in London, and now teaches at the University of Washington, Seattle. In the early 1970s — he made his New York debut and won his silver medal at Leeds in 1972 — he recorded a good bit of Liszt, both original works and transcriptions, including a genuine rarity in those days, the formidable Norma Fantasy. More recently, he has recorded Schubert (see Robert Matthew-Walker's review in April 2011), all the Beethoven sonatas (see RM-W in February 2006) and a great deal of Bach. Happily, for last year's bicentennial, Sheppard returned to Liszt in concerts at Seattle's Meany Theater on October 21st and 22nd. This strikingly original recording of the first two books of Annees de pelerinage, compiled from those two concerts, more than justifies the long wait. As is his wont, Sheppard supplies his own booklet notes, sharing insights borne from long association with these masterpieces.
Sheppard's immersion in Bach is everywhere evident in his Liszt playing. In the opening pieces of both books, for instance — 'Chapelle de Guillaume Tell' from Book 1 and the evocation of Raphael introducing Book 2, 'Sposalizio' — the voice-leading is beautifully articulated. The three Petrarch Sonnets (two of which featured on one of Sheppard's youthful LPs) are immensely enhanced by the same sensitivities, amidst their myriad other beautiful qualities of which poetic tenderness is far from the least. The rigours of contrapuntal thinking do not flatter, on the other hand, popularly derived pieces like the 'Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa', where jaunty swagger comes off as wooden constraint, or that proto-impressionist masterpiece, 'Au borde d'une source', in which teasing out inner voices disturbs the gossamer surface of shifting light and colour.
The fearsome 'Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata', for all its uncompromising integrity and sweep, sounds as though held at an arm's length rather than fully owned and inhabited. In contrast to those force-of-nature readings by Claire-Marie Le Guay or Bertrand Chamayou, where we seem to witness the torments of the damned or, casting eyes upward, glimpse the promise of redemption, Sheppard's Dante Sonata maintains a certain distance, borne perhaps of scepticism. In place of the molten passions evoked by Delacroix, we have instead a grande machine by Bouguereau, masterful in its own way, certainly, but leaving us less than fully engaged. These reservations notwithstanding, there is a great deal to admire here, and much to enjoy. Would that Book 3 had been included, along with Venezia e Napoli, so that we could experience the entire Années de pèlerinage from so sympathetic a pianist.
As much as one would like to declare this one of the very best Annees of recent years, it is difficult to do so. Pianists like Louis Lortie and Chamayou have raised that bar very high indeed. Both combine exquisite musicality with an unassailable intellectual grasp of Liszt's pilgrimages, delivering all with a sensual connection to the instrument that makes even the suggestion of overplaying or producing a harsh, aggressive sound unthinkable. One might counter that Sheppard's is a live recording, not the product of the studio. I would tend to agree, had I not heard Lortie play the Annees in concert last year, a performance on a consummate level of artistry barely hinted at by his magnificent recording. Nevertheless, conceptually speaking, Sheppard's interpretations are extraordinarily honest, abundant with considered detail, thoughtful, loving and beholden to no one. Ultimately, if you're after intelligent Liszt playing captured on CD in the heat of public performance, Sheppard is your man.