LATEST RELEASE! Bach The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I The latest in Craig Sheppard's highly acclaimed Bach series, recorded live in Seattle's Meany Theater in April, 2007. A treasure for Bach lovers, based on Sheppard's lifelong association with this great music.
Adding to his growing discography of the keyboard
works of J. S. Bach (see reviews of the Partitas in 30:1 and the two-
and three-part inventions in 30:4) pianist Craig Sheppard has now
committed to disc Book I of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, the composer’s
cyclical progression of preludes and fugues through the major and minor
keys. As recently as a review of Ross W. Duffin’s book, How Equal
Temperament Ruined Harmony, and Why You Should Care, in 30:3, the
subjects of equal temperament and tempered tuning were still raising
controversy and stirring debate, long after most of us considered the
matter a done deal. Bach most certainly did not invent the
concept—various methodologies were tried by others preceding him—nor was
the “tempered” tuning adopted by Bach in his “WTC” the precise
equivalent of what we live by today, which is the division of the octave
into 12 equal semitones. Slightly more interesting, and amusing, at
least to me, is the fact that there are in theory more than 24 major and
minor keys, and this is because of tempered tuning, not in spite of it.
There are, on paper, at least, 30 major and minor keys, 15 of each
rather than 12. Beginning with the keys containing five sharps and those
containing five flats, each of them has a logical enharmonic equivalent.
For example, the key of B Major with five sharps sounds exactly the same
but can be written as the key of C♭ Major with seven flats. For his
third Prelude and Fugue, Bach moves up a half-step from C to C♯ Major
with seven sharps. But why not move up a half-step from C to D♭ Major
with five flats? To the ear, on a modern piano, it would sound no
different; it would just be written in a key with five flats—less
daunting I should think to the eye than a key with seven sharps. What
this seems to bear out is that the “tempered” tuning Bach was working
with was indeed not quite the same system we know today, and that in
fact C♯ Major and D♭ Major would not have been the same keys.
Sheppard is up against formidable competition here, ranging from Edwin
Fischer (1933–1936), Rosalyn Tureck (1953), Glenn Gould (1962–1965), and
Sviatoslav Richter (1970–1973, unfortunately in poor sound), to more
recent versions with András Schiff (1984), Angela Hewitt (1997, just
re-released at a special price), and Till Fellner (2002). I’m not
quite prepared to say that Sheppard eclipses any of the above-named
artists, each of which can be appreciated for different reasons and on
his or her own merits. But a comparison between Sheppard and Fellner,
whose ECM release I reviewed in 27:6, is instructive. Of Fellner, I said
his reading is “as well played an account as it is serious—serious in
the sense of being rigorously intellectual, earnest, and honest. This is
Bach with few frills and no fussiness. Embellishments are minimal and
Bach’s magisterial counterpoint is revealed to us in its immaculate
conception.” I could use many of the same words to describe Craig
Sheppard’s interpretation but with some essential substitutions. Here is
how I would characterize Sheppard’s performance: as well played an
account as it is fun—fun in the sense of being joyous and exuberant.
This is Bach with few frills and no fussiness. Embellishments are
minimal and Bach’s magisterial counterpoint is revealed to us in its
immaculate conception; yet these abstract musical mobiles are set into
motion with a naturalness and freedom that allows them to trip off the
page with an incredible lightness of being. As with Fellner, Sheppard
adopts sane tempos, but the results he achieves are closer, I believe,
to the more easygoing conversational style of Hewitt. There is nothing
in Sheppard’s approach that attempts to inflate these pieces beyond
their intended purpose. So often in Bach-playing of the Romantic school
a sense of exaggerated reverence robs the music of its playfulness and
sheer delight in contrapuntal banter. As an antidote, too often the
school of authentic period-instruments practices goes overboard in the
other direction, giving us absurdly fast tempos, bizarre flights of
ornamentation, preposterous speculative cadenzas, and ultimately
performances that are no more historically supportable than are those
emanating from the Romantic school. Bach is plastic and adaptable,
one of the reasons his keyboard music transfers so readily from
harpsichord to piano. Sheppard is one of those artists, along with
Schiff and Hewitt, who in his own way has found a happy and wholly
satisfying middle ground. These recordings were made before live
audiences on April 26–27, 2007, in Seattle’s Meany Theater. I would
expect Sheppard’s next installment, Book II, to follow soon. Meanwhile,
I can recommend this release enthusiastically and without reservation.
American Record Guide Review
May/June 2008 Issue
BACH: Well-Tempered Clavier I
Craig Sheppard, Romeo 7258 [2CD] 119 minutes
Sheppard's Partitas (Romeo 7248, July/Aug 2007) were one of my favorite recordings of last year, and this WTC I follows right on its heels. He is performing Book II widely this spring and will no doubt release the recording fairly soon. As before, these are concert recordings, and, priced less than $25, this is a bargain. The sound is great, and we hear the polite audience only at the end of each disc. I am again amazed at the virtual absence of any mistake. But note-perfect playing is worthless without communicative ability, and Sheppard conveys a lifetime of deep affection for this music with every measure.
I get a sense that Sheppard has an overall conception for this monumental collection that goes far beyond his attention to the details of each individual piece. He has been performing this (and Book II as well) in concert over quite a period of time. He makes them work as two very satisfying halves of a piano recital, keeping strictly in normal order; Prelude and Fugue 1-12 as the first half and 13-24 as the second.
Sheppard is not shy about using all of the tonal palette of the modern grand piano, though he does use the pedal sparingly. His variety of touch is particularly evident in the fugues, where his always interesting and musical phrasing of the initial fugue subject is clearly articulated every time it occurs. While this is expected at the outset as each voice enters, most of us can't maintain the clarity like Sheppard when the going gets tough and the counterpoint thickens. Listen especially to his Fugue in F minor that ends the first disc or the big A minor in the middle of the second. The B-flat minor Prelude and Fugue is a truly masterly rendition, in hushed tones, of one of Bach's most poignant works.
This recording is a joy from first to last notes and will remain on my active listening stack for quite some time.
BBC Magazine Review
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1
Craig Sheppard (piano)
Romeo Records 7258-9
118:56 mins (2 discs)
Following Craig Sheppard's other recent Bach recordings — of the Partitas and Two- and Three-Part Inventions — his performance of Book I of the
Well-Tempered Clavier confirms what an outstanding musician he is. Sometimes daring but never merely eccentric, he makes this music pulse with emotional intensity.
Sheppard doesn't shy away from the piano's distinctive colouristic possibilities, despite his sparse use of the pedal. The recorded sound is closely miked, sometimes uncomfortably so, which gives it a crisp immediacy while negating the instrument's sustaining power. In some pieces this accentuates Sheppard's uncompromising muscularity (as in the Fugues in
F sharp minor and B minor) or
brusque percussiveness (the G major
Fugue), but such moments are offset
elsewhere by Sheppard's refined
lyricism and an authoritative poise
that is always involving. This strong
account may nor supplant personal
favourites (whether Fischer, Tureck,
Schiffor Hewitt), but it has a great
deal to offer. Book II is promised in
the autumn. Tim Parry
Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV846-69
Romeo Records 7258/9 (119' • DDD)
The well-tempered Sheppard is really into his stride in Bach
Craig Sheppard's live Bach series from Seattle's Meany Theater goes from strength to strength and, in the case of the Well Tempered Clavier Book 1, benefits from warmer, fuller engineering than in the previously released Partitas and Inventions. In his insightful booklet-notes, Sheppard discusses how he came to view Bach in more lyrical, legato terms than in the detache, non-legato style he once favoured. The evidence suggests something in between. Certainly the crisply dispatched C minor, D major, F major, G major and A minor Preludes evoke a less brash version of Glenn Gould's dry-point vigour. At the same time, the B flat minor Prelude's gorgeous linear differentiation gently soars to high heaven, while the F sharp major Fugue liltingly fuses both styles. Given the C major and E major Fugues' rhythmic resilience and directness, I was surprised to hear the B minor's exposition's articulation so exaggerated and fussed over. One also wonders if the advantages of studio retakes would have prevented slower, introspective fugues such as the D sharp minor, F minor and B flat minor from growing texturally heavier and more emphatic as they progressed. However, these reservations should not deter anyone from appreciating Sheppard's finest work, and I eagerly await Book 2's arrival later this year.
International Piano Review
Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier, book 1.
Craig Sheppard (pf).
Romeo Records 7258/9, two discs 119 minutes
Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier, book 1.
Richard Egarr (hpd).Harmonia Mundi HMU 907431-2. two discs 125 minutes
Both of these new recordings of the Well Tempered Clavier- make reference to research by leading Bach scholars. The American pianist Craig Sheppard cites Paul Badura-Skoda's 1993 book, Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard, as a major influence, in particular the book's discussion of trills and articulation, which, says Sheppard, overturns 'many shibboleths' of traditional performance practice. Richard Egarr, meanwhile, draws on the more recent, and radical, discoveries of Bradley Lehman, who argues that Bach encoded his preferred – and irregular –temperament in the loops that decorated the W-TCs original, hand-written title page. You may think the idea itself sounds loopy, but the 'decoded' temperament (a modified sixth comma mean-tone) does work: it's been road-tested by artists such as Robert Hill and Andrew Manze and performers are now starting to use it on record – examples include the Purcell Quartet's recent disc of Bach's Weimar cantatas and Egarr's 2006 recording of the Goldberg Variations.
Lehman claims that while the temperament sounds 'unremarkable' in itself, it also sounds 'right', whereas other tuning systems can often make the harpsichord sound 'tinny and harsh'. Egarr's harpsichord certainly has a beautiful, gently chiming tone, although how much this is due to the temperament and how much to the instrument builder (Katzman, copying a 1638 Ruckers) and to the recording engineer is hard to say. Egarr's playing is quietly impressive, though his preference for a measured, even studious, approach strays at times into a sluggish, laboured feeling, most regrettably in his bizarrely slow C minor and B minor Preludes and in the halting rubato he adopts for the B minor Fugue.
The B minor Fugue is also my least favourite moment of Craig Sheppard's otherwise sparkling performance, recorded live in Seattle (as were his critically-acclaimed discs of the Bach Partitas and Beethoven sonatas). The sound is remarkably good though I Suspect the emotional high of the live event led him to embellish that concluding fugue with a rather heavy-handed climactic grandeur that leans more towards Romantic excess than Baroque extravagance. It's an uncharacteristic lapse in an overall fine performance that combines rhythmic drive with precise articulation and astute dynamic variety: I especially liked his magically ethereal F minor Prelude and his cleft handling of the emphatic repetitions in the. G sharp minor Fugue. While Angela Hewitt remains my benchmark Bach pianist – for her irresistible rhythmic zest and exquisite subtlety of touch – Sheppard offers similar qualities in a slightly more volatile, unbuttoned style that is both persuasive and very engaging
International Record Review
January 2008 edition, page 53
J. S. Bach New
Das wohltemperierte Clavier – Book 1, BVVV846-69.
Craig Sheppard (piano).
Romeo Records 7258/9 (full price, two discs, 1 hour 59 minutes). Website www.remeorecords.com.
Producer Ron Mannarino.
Producer/Engineer Dmitriy Lipay.
Dates Live performances at Meany Theater, Seattle on April 25th and 26th, 2007.
Gould (Sony Classical) SM2K52600 (1962-65, two discs)
Bach enthusiasts in the market for the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier ("WTC 1') face a near-bewildering range of options. One might choose the iconic readings of Wanda Landowska, recorded in 1949-51, opt for one of the harpsichord's contemporary 'elder statesman', such as Kenneth Gilbert, or perhaps choose one of the younger luminaries, of whom Pierre Hantai is representative. The adventurous may be tempted by Robert Levin's recording, which employs harpsichord, clavichord and organ. Members of the still vast audience for Bach in transcription that is, played on the modern piano — may choose between Edwin Fischer, Gieseking, Horszowski, Richter and Schiff, to name but a sampling. Admittedly, the pianists have their work cut out for them. They must somehow render Bach's uncannily idiomatic plucked string textures comprehensible using thick gauge steel strings struck by felt-encased hammers. In addition, the piano's greater dynamic range (accomplished by thicker strings held at extremely high tension on its iron frame) is achieved at the expense of overtones; the harpsichord's more loosely strung, smaller gauge strings, in contrast, create a much richer, enveloping overtone series. Despite these and other challenges, pianists persist in playing Bach. One of the more recent among them is the estimable Craig Sheppard.
This remarkable artist, in my opinion, has never achieved the fullest acclaim warranted by his manifold gifts. Sheppard, after all, is that rare pianist who plays a dazzling Norma Fantasy, has a sure way with Prokofiev and whose traversal of the Beethoven sonatas is at once intellectually probative and richly communicative. The warm reception accorded his recordings of the Bach Partitas and of the Inventions and Sinfonias augured well for this WTC 1: expectations are not disappointed. Sheppard's approach is essentially lyrical, sparing of pedal, deeply considered and obviously seasoned through long-term intimacy. Most importantly, these interpretations emanate from the heart.
One attribute of the set is the strikingly individual character with which each piece imbued. The G minor depicts a desolate emotional landscape, while the insouciance of the A major Prelude is infectious. Sheppard brings a masterfully sustained cantabile to the broodingly preoccupied E minor Prelude, while its fugal partner, texturally the sparest of the fugues with only two voices, seems massive in its burst of emphatic intensity. Meanwhile, the pompous French Overture style of the sun-drenched D major Fugue is the perfect foil for its scampering, giddy Prelude. The B flat major Fugue evokes the animated conversation of good friends, spiced with juicy gossip. Of course in this vast terrain of 48 individual pieces one may take issue with certain choices. The G major Fugue seems to me aggressively percussive, while the great C sharp minor Prelude reaches an outsized climax that betrays the tragic supplication with which it began. However, whatever Sheppard's choices, they are never boring. It does not diminish the originality of his approach to point out that many of his tempos are surprisingly reminiscent of Glenn Gould's. There any comparison must stop, for Sheppard is blessedly free of Gould's wilful eccentricities and interpretative tics. (Remarkably, while Gould's WTC 1 Las recorded over a period of years, Sheppard's was captured during two days in April 2006 in Seattle's Meany Theatre.)
The recorded sound is generally quite good, though the microphone placement seems close. Some listeners may find the rare pedal mechanism noises distracting; I did not. Sheppard wrote the perceptive notes, touching on both the music and his reverent approach to its interpretation.