Notes and Editorial Reviews
Between January 2003 and May 2004 at Seattle's Meany Theater, Craig Sheppard played Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas in chronological order over seven recitals. They're now released as a boxed set, dubiously titled "Beethoven: A Journey", with tacky graphics to match. But it's the music rather than packaging that counts. Even allowing for post-production editing, a project of this magnitude demands the highest levels of musicianship, pianism, and sheer concentration. Fortunately, there's much to admire over the course of Sheppard's cycle. He tends to favor dry-point clarity and gaunt sonorities in the manner of Hungerford and Gulda, and at his best his playing recalls the quivering tension you hear in Rudolf Serkin's strongest
Beethoven sonata recordings. At the same time Sheppard modifies his generally steady tempos with judiciously timed rhetorical touches and unusual voice leadings that shed fresh light on thrice familiar passages. This particularly holds true concerning the six final sonatas as well as the "Appassionata", Op. 7, Op. 10 No. 3, Op. 22, and Op. 26.
The two Op. 27 sonatas nearly explode with communicative power and inner drama, with a "Moonlight" finale guaranteed to keep listeners on the edge of their seats. Knotty counterpoint also inspires Sheppard to turn up the heat, as Op. 54's last movement plus the taxing Op. 101 and 106 fugues clearly reveal. Fire and elegance easily interact in the "Pathetique", where Sheppard follows Serkin's famous precedent by repeating the first movement's introduction. Curiously, Op. 2 Nos. 1 and 2, the "Pastorale", and the Op. 31 triumvirate is overly clipped, square-toed, and cautious to the point of pedanticism. The Op. 31 No. 3 Scherzo's jaunty woodwind evocations, for example, are about as bubbly as flat soda. And for all the rigor and poise Sheppard brings to the "Waldstein", I miss the propulsion, grandeur, and metric sophistication that distinguishes similarly conceived performances by aforementioned pianists. At times the close microphone placement renders loud passages jangly and airless, to say nothing of the way it calls attention to the pianist's frequent foot stamping and pedal noises. However, the best of what Sheppard has to offer deserves serious attention, and Beethoven fans may well find many of these performances very pleasantly surprising.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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