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Gramophone Review

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Franz Schubert
The last Three Piano Sonatas

Here are the eagerly awaited CDs of Craig Sheppard's Schubert recital, recorded live last May in Seattle's Meany Theater. Following Sheppard's recordings of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and several Bach CDs, including the Inventions and Sinfonias, the six Partitas, and both books of The Well Tempered Clavier, all enthusiastically received in the international press, Sheppard turns his attention to the last three Schubert sonatas in performances of great depth and perception.

2 CDs
$25.00 (plus shipping).

Franz Schubert
The last Three Piano Sonatas, CD 1

Sample Clips (30 seconds)  (Listen to CD 2)

Gramophone Review

June 2011

Sonata in C minor, D958
Sonata in A minor, D959.
Sonata in B flat, D960.
Allegretto in C minor, D915
Craig Sheppard of Romeo Records 7283-4 (118' DOD)
The winner of the 1972 Leeds Piano Competition in more intimate repertoire

Let's say Schubert was a slacker who only wrote two pieces in C major during the final year of his life - the String Quintet and the symphony that came to he known as "The Great". Those edifices would have sufficed to keep the composer in the artistic stratosphere. But Schubert was in a creative fury during this period, producing handfuls of masterpieces, including the three sonatas that Craig Sheppard inhabits to compelling and subtle effect in the live performances on this set.  

These are works that summarise Schubert's gifts on an intimate scale. They follow Beethoven's towering works in the genre without mimicking Of paying homage. Instead, they're Schubertian in the finest sense, merging Classical forms (all of the sonatas are in four movements, with menuettos or scherzos) and an expansively lyrical, Romantic sensibility.

Sheppard doesn't so much play down the monumentalism some pianists emphasise in these scores as bring refined focus to each of the rich narratives. Schubert constantly shifts gears, veering between poetry, melancholy and turbulenceeand Sheppard is keenly alert to the contrasts of mood and harmonic colour.

The pianist uses less pedal than most, which greatly benefits textural clarity, while his pinpoint articulation allows details and contrapuntal lines to be heard in crisp perspective. There are moments when the Hamburg Steinway he's playing sounds as if it's placed too close to the microphones; a certain stridency creeps into passages in the highest register. But Sheppard's artistry is so fluent, nuanced and elastic that the music emerges in all its dramatic and eloquent beauty, especially a performance of the final Sonata in B flat, D960, marked by warmth and expressive grace. The set ends with a yearning account of the Allegretto in C minor, from a month after Beethoven's death, and little more than 18 months before Schubert's premature departure.

Donald Rosenberg

International Record Review

April 2011

Piano Sonatas No. 19 in C minor, D958; No. 20 in A, D959; No. 21 in B flat, D960. Allegretto in C minor, D915.

Craig Sheppard (piano).
Romeo Records 7283-4 (medium price, two discs, 1 hour 57 minutes). Website www.romeorecords.com
Producer/Engineer Dmitriy Lipay. Date Live performances at Meany Theater, Seattle on May 5th, 2010.

This pair of discs is the highlight of my musical year so far. Those of us who remember the heady days of the 1972 Leeds Piano Competition will recall the thrill of the finals, with Americans Murray Perahia and Craig Sheppard musically head and shoulders above the other highly gifted artists, the competition being won by Perahia, with Sheppard coming second.

Since then, of course, Perahia has gone on to become one of the finest pianists in the world, and Sheppard, after living for 20 years in London, where he established an outstanding career, returned to the USA. He is now based at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and during the last 18 years he has brought his profound musicianship to the city, giving concerts and recitals, making records and teaching. The City of Seattle and the students at its University are indeed fortunate to have him in their midst.

It was Hans Keller who said that 'All great artists are, by virtue of what they do, also great teachers' and those who have heard Sheppard's recent recordings on the Romeo label - particularly the complete Beethoven sonatas and Bach 48 and Partitas - will know the truth of that statement. Not that there is anything didactic in Sheppard's playing, but for me the most astonishing thing about his artistry as captured in those recordings is that they are all live performances, before an audience notable for its rapt, silent attention to his playing: the result is a series of genuinely re-creative performances, living organisms in time, which we hear as though the music was being created for our benefit, captured through the medium of the gramophone for our permanent edification.

Of course, there have been live solo performances issued on disc before - Richter and Argerich especially come to mind - but these are often marred by clunks and coughs, our concentration (to say nothing of that of the pianist) being interrupted by unwelcome noises off. In Sheppard's performances of the last three Schubert sonatas I was unaware of the presence of an audience until the spontaneous burst of deserving applause following the final bar of each work.

Sheppard's performances, therefore, grow naturally from first bar to last, uninterrupted by a break during which the pianist is invited to listen to what he has done before going back to the piano to 'try and get that bit right', following a cup of coffee and a biscuit. Such is the nature of technology today that 'rehearse-record' or 'patching' can be so cleverly edited as to beguile us into imagining we are listening to a genuine performance when we are not, but there is no doubt that when we experience a continuous account of a masterpiece, given by a great artist, our concentration and musical understanding rise by several cubits.

So it does here: Sheppard delivers performances of the highest intellectual, emotional and technical artistry as he reveals the musical Holy Grails which are these three immortal masterpieces. In terms of scholarship, he is flawless, basing his interpretations on the Martino Tirimo edition as well as the Peters Edition. He observes all repeats, which are essential in these works.

I have known these sonatas since I was a young teenager, from Schnabel's 78s to early Backhaus and Kempff LPs and so on, and have heard a number of performances live which I hope I shall never forget. In addition, there are artists today who have recorded these works to a very high standard and have deservedly won much praise. Yet having lived with this set, enhanced by Sheppard's own lucid and scholarly notes, for quite a few weeks, I can only urge genuine Schubertians to hear and preferably acquire this landmark release. Were Murray Perahia to hear these performances, I am sure they would earn his profound admiration.

Robert Matthew-Walker

MusicWeb International Review

The American-born pianist Craig Sheppard (b. 1947) is an artist who has made waves on both sides of the Atlantic; he moved from his native Philadelphia to London for 20 years after placing second (to Murray Perahia) in the 1972 Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. Now based at the University of Washington, from which Sheppard also makes regular concert tours - particularly in the Far East - he has applied his formidable intellect and his brilliant technique to a notable series of recitals like this one, all of them recorded live. See www.craigsheppard.net for a complete discography.

This recording makes a good case for Sheppard's claim that the final three Schubert sonatas should be considered as a unity. As one listens to these two discs, the similarities and internal references become quite clear. An example is the opening theme of the B Flat sonata and the second theme of the c minor sonata's first movement. More important than these minutiae, however, is the quality of Sheppard's interpretation: the songlike quality of the right hand, the beautifully natural waxing and waning of the themes and the development, and the simplicity and elegance of the phrasing.

This is virile, exciting Schubert, as well; Sheppard provides a supercharged intensity in the stormier sections. The D.959 is particularly full of vivid contrasts. Here and elsewhere, Sheppard commands some real thunder-power along with the thoughtfulness and intelligence of his interpretations.

This reviewer also heard the live concert performance of this recording. The clarity and colors of the recorded sound are remarkably close to the effect of sitting in the balcony at the University of Washington's superb 1,200-seat Meany Theater, a space that is virtually ideal for a piano recital.

Melinda Bargreen






Track Listings

Disc 1
Track Title Time
  Sonata in c minor, D958 31:12
1 Allegro 10:38
2 Adagio 7:22
3 Menuetto: Allegro 3:08
4 Allegro 10:04
  Sonata in A Major, D959 39:54
5 Allegro 15:38
6 Andantino 7:25
7 Scherzo: Allegro vivace 5:02
8 Rondo: Allegretto 11:49
  Total 71:06
Disc 2
Track Title Time
  Sonata in B flat, D960 41:57
1 Molto moderato 19:17
2 Andante sostenuto 10:02
3 Scherzo: Allegro vivace con delicatezza 4:15
4 Allegro ma non troppo 8:23
5 Allegretto in c minor, D915 5:15
Total 70:45

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