Beethoven: A Journey - The 32 Piano Sonatas, CD 1
Sample Clips (30 seconds)
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Craig Sheppard’s cycle of the Beethoven sonatas was given in the Meany Theatre, Seattle, over a period of sixteen months between 2003 and 2004. The sonatas were given chronologically in a series called Beethoven: A Journey. The performances are unedited and have now appeared in a nine CD box. Not that Sheppard has previously shied away from imposing, live Beethovenian Meany Theatre recitals on disc. Three years ago I reviewed his deeply impressive Diabelli Variations performance (see review), which he coupled with Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata and Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat D899. This, one of the peaks of Beethoven’s solo piano writing – perhaps the peak – drew from Sheppard a profound awareness of characterisation in all its myriad breadth and this, allied to a potent and unruffled technique, coalesced in a performance of, for want of a better phrase, powerful universality of spirit.
So one should expect no less of Sheppard, three years later, than that he should have proved equally masterful in his unfolding of the sonatas.
At the risk of courting dullness in a similarly chronological review of Sheppard’s playing I think it’s best to alight on certain features of his playing, qualities that lend so cohesive and convincing a standpoint to these works. One is rhythmic; note the easy swing generated in the opening of Op.7 or the commensurately powerful chording in its Largo. There’s the brisk, businesslike determination evoked in the Allegro of Op.10 No.2 and the distinctive textual clarity explored in the opus companion in D major in which a rather martial declamation is to the fore. The quality of clarity – never equitable with coldness – is exemplified in the Largo e mesto of Op.10 No.3. Sheppard refuses either to inflate these early sonatas beyond their natural stylistic bounds or to downplay their more cavalier moments, characterising instead with affinity for their particular place in the Beethovenian scheme of things.
Thus by the time we reach the Pathétique we find all these qualities firmly in place; dynamics are natural sounding and not subject to extremes; there’s a sense of measure in phrasal placement; the slow movement is reserved but not indifferent; there’s great care over note values and articulation; phrases flow with crest and fall; the finale is not an exercise in defiance or over-generous emotionalism. Things are, in fact, profitably scaled, both emotively and architecturally. Some may find Sheppard here rather unwilling to luxuriate in romantic reverie; others will warmly welcome the imagination and intelligence that informs playing that remains true to itself.
I enjoyed his way with the Op.14 sonatas – wittily engaging in the capricious modernity of the E major and displaying limpidity and lyricism in its companion in G major where his clipped phrasing in the Andante is well contrasted with more yielding pliancy of phrasing. So too the real élan of his bumptious brio in Op.22 with its corollary, a measured dignity. What Sheppard does so well in these earlier sonatas is to present a rather formal control; he does it in Op.26’s Funeral March to fine effect; there’s a sense of distance, emotively speaking, a rather formalised concentration that marks a delineation between the personal and the externalised and has a rather pictorial cast.
The Moonlight remains entirely consonant with the tenor of his playing – subtlety of dynamics, no overt emotionalising beyond natural constraints, tonal colour, a clear sense of pacing, and a natural sense of the peaks and troughs of phraseology. To this extent the Allegretto can sound a touch deliberate but this is part of Sheppard’s schema for the sonata; one listens unencumbered by pre-judgement or presupposition when one hears playing such as this.
Sheppard revels in the operatic vocalising of the opening of Op.28 – here his skilful balancing of hands, his subtle pedal usage and his instinct for the natural falling of phrases is at its most impressive and acute. The repeated left hand figures are perfectly scaled and the gentlemanly rococo flourishes mid section are brought out with glorious wit. Catching wit, exploring the more guttural and coalescing the two are constant features of this playing; so the witty badinage of Op.31 No.1 is reinforced by the slow movement’s left hand repeated stabbing and ensuing gallant roulades and furtive frivolities in the slow movement. The Tempest is measured, coloured with chording of considerable weight and portent, a sense of gravity ever-present; Sheppard is certainly not afraid to make gruff attacks when necessary as we can hear in the same sonata’s Allegretto finale. Fluid and lyric the Op.49 sonatas are given their full measure of Sheppardian acuity. Rubati are finely judged throughout. There’s splendid swagger in the Op.54.
The Waldstein evinces a reserved and patrician gravity; dynamics count, contrastive moods are integrated within the whole; points are made through entirely musico-dramatic means, tension is generated incrementally throughout the finale but with the sense of an Allegretto moderato before the Prestissimo conclusion. His approach to the Appassionata prefigures his way with the last sonatas; one senses that things are unresolved, that the expressive control exercised in the slow movement – in its compressed intensity – is a microcosm of future intensities and that the driving, note perfect finale is the natural consummation of the preceding rhetoric.
He takes seriously Op.78 – delicate treble sonorities – and vests Op.79 with a reflective and questing drama. There’s superb balance between hands and a songful seriousness entirely appropriate to the feel of the music. The lightness and relief of the vivace finale ends a mini drama of compelling but appropriate intensity. This being the case its no great surprise to find Les Adieux responds so well to Sheppard’s sense of the listless and unsettled, though one should again note that he eschews artifice and bogus brush strokes in his quest for the essential truth of the music.
The justness of his rhythm and the delicacy and unselfconscious simplicity of his phrasing, which bespeaks the complex depth of his association with the music, can be heard in Op.90. Its songfulness takes wing, is subtly held back and relinquished, as Sheppard traces its coursing movement with avian flexibility but sure command. Wonderful playing. Lest one should concentrate on his rhythmic control and his digital surety and believe this to be a rather ironclad traversal I need to stress the pure lyricism of his playing but add that he refuses to distend phrases or to bloat these sonatas with the spurious. The depth proceeds from his total concentration on the verities of music making. This is very much the case with Op.101 where tone colours are exemplary in the opening movement and where timbral variety and structural control lead very naturally from the slow opening of the finale to its more pressing tempo.
For the Hammerklavier we find Sheppard’s resources devoted to his highly personal and concentrated exploration. The sense of organisation here is palpable, indeed remarkable; phrases sound progressive and inevitable. There’s no excessive lingering in the slow movement but there remains a powerful sense of phrasal freedom and space nonetheless. The rhythmic subtleties and the resilience of the playing are notable, the digital clarity in the fugal passages of the finale beyond reproach - astounding, in fact. The playing abjures what one might define as speculative, philosophic utterances as is indeed the case with Op 109. The delightfully sprung rhythm and clarity of the playing might tempt one to think Sheppard a cool player but his directness in the theme and variations finale here is not seen by him as a titanic tussle with extra-musical issues so much as rooted in musical problems and complexities and their proper resolution. His refusal to bathe in contemplative waters here, and throughout, is in accordance with his clear vision of the unsettled and the provisional in the writing.
If one can speak of a mood throughout Sheppard’s playing of the last sonatas then it’s something akin to agitation, a perpetually alive and intense vortex of feeling. He captures the brilliant dynamism of the writing through powerful digital command; behind this lies his intellectual control and behind this control lies a cogent and plausible perception of the panorama of Beethoven’s writing. This much is clear with Op.110 where we find playing that is vibrant and alive and intensely exciting – Sheppard, for all the sometimes gaunt drama is never one to underplay the manifold emotions in these sonatas. Again we find in the Adagio Sheppard’s characteristic intensity, a quicksilver, unsettled response that demands much of the performer.
And so to Op.111 where the dynamism that runs throughout the cycle courses through to the end. There is here a blistering grandeur of utterance allied to magnificent chordal intensity and precision. The Arietta is characterised with all his accustomed authority and perception; changes of mood are powerful and telling; again he makes no concession to those for whom the spiritual elides into the religiose. This is tactile, life affirming, deeply human playing. And yet it is also hugely affecting in its own terms bringing with it a sense of immensity and conquering spirit. It affirms Sheppard’s own journeying.
This is a cycle then of the highest quality. The booklet notes are Sheppard’s own. He plays on his Hamburg Steinway and it sounds magnificent. The sound captures its full range but is rather close. Which brings me to my only real criticism. The closeness of the Steinway to the microphones has also captured what I take to be air displacement when Sheppard pedals. It comes across as a small but persistent, sometimes quite loud, “whoosh.” It would be wrong of me to say that I didn’t find it an occasional irritant but it would be equally wrong to suggest that it materially distracted me from Sheppard’s playing. That, needless to say, is of a truly elevated standard.
When I first saw the title given to this set of the Beethoven piano sonatas I was a little apprehensive in case this was a glib strap-line dreamed up by the marketing men. Such cynicism was completely unjustified, however. What Craig Sheppard presents here is indeed a journey, a musical and philosophical odyssey through the sonatas. What’s particularly remarkable is that he offers the sonatas in chronological order, exactly as, with a couple of exceptions, he presented the music in a series of seven concerts between January 2003 and May 2004. Those concerts are preserved on these discs. In the concerts, for very good reasons, there were a couple of minor divergences from the opus number order. The two little sonatas that comprise Op. 49 were placed in the middle of the second concert and restored to their rightful chronological place because they were composed between 1795 and 1798. Perhaps of greater moment was the ordering of the programme for the fifth concert, which I’ll discuss later on. I’m grateful to Mr. Sheppard for supplying me with the information about the precise dates on which each concert was given and for providing me with additional information explaining the very valid reasons that led him to depart from strict chronology in the fifth recital.
The use of the word “journey” in the album title is deliberate. As Mr. Sheppard writes in his eloquent and most interesting booklet essay, the idea behind a chronological concert presentation of the thirty-two sonatas was “to trace Beethoven’s growth from a compositional, a spiritual and an intellectual perspective”. Sheppard sees this as “essential to an understanding of our own individual transformation as we progress through life. In essence, Beethoven’s struggle is a metaphor for not only our own individual journeys but also for the collective journey of an entire planet.”
This may not be a unique venture as a concert series – though in my experience most pianists mix their programmes of Beethoven sonatas, tending to offer a blend, perhaps, of early, middle or late sonatas. However, so far as I’m aware the sonatas have not previously been presented on CD as live performances in this chronological fashion. Furthermore, in these recordings editing has been kept to the barest minimum. In other words, what we hear on these discs is as near as possible to what the concert audiences heard. For domestic listening one can, of course, listen to the sonatas in any order one chooses or just dip in for a single sonata. However, I decided it would be an interesting experience to listen to the discs as seven recitals, replicating as closely as possible the way the audiences heard them on those evenings, albeit with the recitals not so widely spaced, and writing the notice of each concert before moving on to the next. So what follows is my diary of listening.
Recital. 7 January 2004
My Beethoven journey, with Craig Sheppard as my guide, began with the first of his seven recital programmes.
It may not be that usual to play the three sonatas that comprise Op. 2. as a sequence in concert. Actually it’s a jolly good idea because one can readily appreciate the compositional growth that Beethoven displays in these pieces dedicated to his teacher, Haydn. The spirit of Haydn and, indeed, of Mozart, can be discerned quite readily in Op. 2 No. 1, especially in the first two movements. From the outset I was impressed by the nice clean articulation of Sheppard’s finger work and by his fidelity to Beethoven’s markings. The benign influences of Mozart and Haydn are evident in the second movement too and here the pianist imparts a nice flow to the music and deals very successfully with the significant amount of ornamentation. Does the Menuetto show us the first sign in these sonatas of Beethoven the maverick, the innovator? He places the melody on some unexpected beats with the result that the music has an irregular feel. Already we sense Beethoven moving out of the shadows of Haydn and becoming his own man. This is even more evident in the pell-mell finale where Beethoven’s trademark use of abrupt contrast between loud and soft dynamics and another trait, his use of sforzandi, are both much in evidence.
At the end of this performance some of the appreciative applause is retained. I quite like this, as it reminds us we’re listening to a live event. Strangely, however, there is an inconsistent policy about the retention of applause in this set.
Op. 2, No. 2 is a generally good-humoured affair. Once again Sheppard’s playing displays admirable clarity. He brings a lovely, witty touch to the first movement. His use of rubato is sparing but always seems highly appropriate. . I liked his reading of the second movement, Largo appassionato, which in parts sounds almost like a slow march. The important bass line is well defined and the playing as a whole is nicely poised. The short powerful climax is well achieved and the wind-down from it equally well controlled. The playing in the rondo finale displays a splendid degree of fantasy. Later on, when the music moves into triplets at bar 57, there’s the right amount of energy in the pianism and I particularly relished the fine leggiero playing and Sheppard’s deft touch.
In his notes the pianist points out that Op. 2, No 3 is much more of a virtuoso work than its companions. We can see this immediately in the first movement, which is clearly much more demanding of the soloist. The music is more rhetorical too. Sheppard handles this movement superbly, especially the rather turbulent development section. The adagio second movement is more profound than anything we’ve heard to date. Sheppard shapes it beautifully and with fine feeling. His playing has the requisite degree of power or delicacy according to Beethoven’s demands. In the mercurial scherzo he displays fine finger work once again and makes excellent use of the many accents and the dynamic contrasts that Beethoven has written into the music, recognising how important all this is to an effective performance. His account of the scampering finale inspires the audience to an ovation that’s well deserved.
This third sonata demonstrates a very definite advance over the other two sonatas and hearing them in sequence makes the point brilliantly. Already Craig Sheppard’s chronological approach has paid a substantial dividend in the very first programme.
To conclude he offers Op. 7. The helter-skelter opening movement is dispatched with brio. Yet again the precise observance of Beethoven’s markings, the sforzandi in particular, is shown to be crucial to success. Writing of the slow movement of this sonata Sheppard rightly draws attention to the importance of rests and silences in the music. The movement is marked Largo, con gran espressione and Sheppard does indeed play it with great expression – though he never overdoes the expression. The following allegro is a little caprice, a welcome contrast to the slow movement. It’s charming, though there’s a minor-key central section in which the skies darken somewhat. Sheppard offers mainly relaxed but always observant playing in this movement. The concluding rondo is a delight in his hands. Its turbulent section in the minor is projected strongly and there’s a lovely and very satisfying sense of logic in the way he brings the movement and the whole sonata to a close.
This first programme has been most stimulating and enjoyable and splendidly played. My appetite has been well and truly whetted for the journey to come.
Second Recital. 17 March 2003
The inclusion of the two Op. 49 sonatas at this juncture is correct for they were written at some time between 1795 and 1798. It seems that Beethoven did not intend to publish them and it was his brother, Carl, who arranged for publication, without Beethoven’s prior knowledge or consent, in 1803. This explains the relatively high opus numbers. Sensibly, I think, Craig Sheppard intersperses them between the sonatas that constitute Op. 10.
Sheppard characterises Op. 10, No. 1 as impulsive in his notes and that comes out in his playing. There’s lots of light and shade in his reading of the first movement. The second movement mixes restlessness and tranquillity and Sheppard catches those differing moods well. He brings great energy to the finale. Op. 49 No. 1 is a very small-scale piece but Sheppard gives it its full worth, playing fluently in the first movement and delivering the perky little rondo finale – there are only two movements – with aplomb. The first movement of Op. 10 No. 2 is almost cheekily insouciant. Here again Sheppard’s excellent feel for and accuracy in rhythm serves the music well. The good-natured finale is mercurial and comes across well.
Op. 10 No. 3 is described in the notes as an “architectural gem”. The first movement is sparky and inventive. Sheppard says of the slow movement that it is “easily [Beethoven’s] most tragic, and to my mind his greatest slow movement up to that of the Hammerklavier of 1818.” He goes on to suggest that the tone of the music may well have been dictated by Beethoven’s first intimations, around this time, of his hearing problems. Sheppard responds to this profound music with deeply felt and very sensitive playing. The elegiac passage from bar 30 is very powerful here. The strongly profiled playing that he offers in this movement makes the mainly quiet last few measures from bar 76 all the more affecting. This movement contains deeply impressive music which here receives a performance to match. The quirky, impulsive finale is played with élan and Sheppard makes the coda irresistible. The little sonata Op. 49 No. 2 that follows is pleasingly fresh.
The recital ends with the first of the “big name” sonatas, the Pathétique. This is the grandest sonata we’ve encountered so far and, comparing it with the sonatas of Op. 10 Sheppard writes that it “appears conservative, bold and raw in its assertiveness, but not nearly as innovative as the previous works.” In the first movement he does something rather unusual, taking the exposition repeat right back to the start of the movement rather than from the beginning of the Allegro di molto, as is marked in most editions of the score, including the edition with which I’m following these performances. In this he says he is following the example of Rudolf Serkin and he comments that, since the autograph has not survived we can’t know what the composer’s intentions were. I must say I’m unsure about this. On the one hand, the imposing opening Grave has all the characteristics of an introduction and perhaps its effect is all the greater if heard only once in its entirety. On the other hand, abbreviated forms of the Grave crop up elsewhere in the movement, suggesting Beethoven intended it as more than a one-off introductory passage. Also Sheppard has precedent on his side in that the exposition repeat in the first movements of previous sonatas invariably start from the very beginning. It’s a debatable point and I can see both sides of the argument. All I will say is that Sheppard makes a convincing case for his decision in this performance.
He gives a splendidly fiery and propulsive account of the first movement and in the material of the Grave he’s suitably mysterious and majestic. His reading of the Adagio cantabile is patrician, bringing out well the stoic nobility of the music. To the wonderful rondo finale he brings an agility and grace that seems effortless and an abundance of energy too. All in all he gives a splendid account of the sonata and is rightly rewarded with a most enthusiastic audience response at the end. This Pathétique caps another fine and stimulating recital.
Recital. 21 May 2003
This is a lengthy and challenging programme, comprising no less than six sonatas and running to some 108 minutes of music. First up is Op. 14 No. 1. This, we are told, is one of Sheppard’s personal favourites on account of its “gentility.” Interestingly, it’s also music that Beethoven later adapted and re-worked into a string quartet. The opening movement is predominantly easy and sunny in tone and Sheppard plays it as such. It’s a relaxed performance and I liked his grace and lightness of touch. The second movement is similarly benign and the concluding fleet rondo is deftly done.
Of its companion, Op. 14 No. 2, Sheppard writes that “while gentle and affecting on the surface (particularly in the first movement), [it] gives us a new view of Beethoven the Experimenter.” As with the previous sonata the first movement is mainly easy in tone. Sheppard’s playing is affectionate and poised and in his hands the movement is a delight. The following Andante is not, perhaps, Beethoven’s most interesting movement. The direction Andante is generally held to imply walking pace and that’s exactly the speed at which the music is taken here; I think the choice of speed is perfect. And I was equally taken with the precision of the playing. The puckish and rhythmically unexpected scherzo finale is another movement in which rests and silences are of crucial importance. Once again Sheppard brings a deft touch to the proceedings.
The first movement of Op. 22 is vigorous and somewhat abrupt. By contrast the following Adagio is most expressive. As he has done before Sheppard here displays a remarkable ability to let Beethoven’s slower music breathe and unfold at its own pace. In the Menuetto that follows I wondered for the very first time in the cycle about Sheppard’s choice of speed. It seemed somewhat brisk for a minuet, which is, after all, a dance. Yet for all that the chosen tempo fits the character of the music well, especially the minor-key trio. Perhaps Beethoven’s title was misleading? The somewhat turbulent finale is strongly projected.
Op. 26 opens, for the first time in Beethoven’s piano sonatas, not with a sonata-form movement but with a theme and variations. There are five variations in all and they’re very interesting ones. Craig Sheppard is surely right to say that the predominant feature in this movement is pianistic colour. The third movement is a funeral march, “for a dead hero”, though who is commemorated here is unknown. It’s powerful, dark music and Sheppard projects it vividly and dramatically.
The two sonatas that comprise Op. 27 both bear the title Sonata quasi una Fantasia. Op. 27 No. 1 consists of four short, linked movements. Again Beethoven opens with a set of variations. These are full of surprises such as the modulation in bar 13 and the sudden allegro section that erupts at bar 37. There are more surprises in the second movement, though these are rhythmical and subtle. The headlong finale is the key movement for me and it incorporates yet another surprise in the form of a brief recapitulation, near the end, of the material of the fine Adagio third movement. Sheppard’s excellent performance of this sonata raise cheers from his audience and I’m not surprised. This sonata offers, I think, another example of the benefits of Sheppard’s chronological approach. This is the fifteenth sonata in the series and the ones we’ve heard previously have been full of invention and new thinking. However, in this performance I was struck quite forcibly by how innovative in many ways is Op. 27 No. 1 Hearing it in chronological context makes it seem like a breakthrough piece and something of a watershed. Craig Sheppard opined that Op. 14 No. 2 introduced us to Beethoven the Experimenter. May I suggest respectfully that this is even more true of Op. 27 No. 1?
The final item is the familiar Op. 27 No. 2, the so-called “Moonlight”. I liked Sheppard’s way with the famous first movement. He plays it with feeling and dignity but his performance is natural and unaffected. For me the highlight is his reading of the tempestuous finale. This is headstrong, impetuous music, which he plays with real bits and urgency. Despite the frequent cantabile passages this is volcanic music and the performance is really exciting. It’s small wonder that the audience bursts into cheers at the end.
This substantial and very stimulating recital concludes Craig Sheppard’s exploration of Beethoven’s so-called early period sonatas. The first stage of the journey has been concluded and numerically we’ve reached the halfway point. So far it’s been a most rewarding and illuminating voyage of discovery.
Recital. 14 October 2003
The sonata Op. 28 was named ‘Pastorale’ by Beethoven’s publisher rather than by its author. Though written at a time of some personal turbulence in Beethoven’s life, its general tone is pacific. Sheppard conveys well the essentially beneficent mood of the first movement but also has the necessary strength in the development section. Not for the first time I admired his very natural use of rubato. The slow movement is rather unusual, sounding like a little march, albeit not a military one. The purposeful tread of the bass line is well brought out here and there’s an equally successful realisation of the perky character of the scherzando-like central section. From bar 83 until the end of the movement Sheppard pulls back the speed. This isn’t marked in the edition of the score that I’ve been using – but it is totally convincing. In the finale the pianist’s deft touch is once again evident as he gives a nice lift to the rhythms. In the più allegro coda he’s admirably nimble.
What a good idea to programme together the three sonatas that comprise Op. 31, especially as they are so different from each other! Op. 31 No. 1 is a good-humoured work. Sheppard gives a lively and smiling account of the first movement, which includes a good deal of rushing passagework. Beethoven sustains the jocular mood into the second movement, with music that’s often playful. The concluding rondo features what perhaps I might term strongly profiled geniality and the music of the coda really wears a smile. I enjoyed Sheppard’s performance of this sonata very much.
In his notes Sheppard de-bunks the notion that Op. 31 No. 2 is a response to or commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and his reasoning seems completely sound to me. He says that this is a difficult piece and that the performer needs to think outside the box if it’s to be successfully realised. He maintains that the music has a sense of impending tragedy and, for me, this comes across in his performance. In the first movement every time the harp-like largo section occurs he plays it quite magically. But alongside this poetic delicacy is steely determination in the turbulent development section. The music of the adagio is ruminative but Sheppard very rightly maintains a proper forward momentum so that any danger of the music becoming becalmed is avoided. He points out in his note that some pianists, manly younger ones, play the concluding allegretto too fast. The speed that he himself chooses seems to be to be admirably sane – well-judged tempi have been a conspicuous feature of this cycle so far – and the music benefits. There’s clarity but also the appropriate amount of weight in a wholly successful reading of the movement.
Sheppard describes Op. 31 No. 3 as “a breath of fresh air” after its predecessor. The music of the first movement sounds at ease with itself, not least the delightfully playful melody that we first hear at bar 46. There’s almost a skittish feel to parts of this movement, which Sheppard plays superbly. His playing of the second movement is infectiously animated and he’s just as convincing in the slow minuet that Beethoven places third in the sonata. The finale is an irrepressible, helter-skelter dance that just whirls along in this performance. Beethoven is in the highest possible spirits here and the notes just seem to tumble over each other – but Craig Sheppard achieves this without even a hint of losing control. Beethoven’s characteristic use of sudden dynamic changes is perfectly realised and the propulsive rhythms propel the music along marvellously. This superb performance of Op. 31 No 3, one of the very best so far in the series, makes an exhilarating end to another fine recital, one that’s rightly appreciated by the audience.
Fifth Recital. 7 January 2004
With this group of sonatas there was departure from the strict chronological presentation, as will be evident from the sub-heading above. As Craig Sheppard commented in a note to me: “I felt that a program which included both the Waldstein and the Appassionata couldn’t end with Op. 79, so I switched the order, finishing with Op. 57. It was not an easy decision to make. Historically, Opp. 78 and 79 belong to a later period. But I had to think of my audience.” This pragmatic decision seems fair enough to me. On the CDs the chronology has been restored but I decided to stick with my policy of listening to the sonatas as they had been presented in concert.
Op. 78 is a brief sonata in just two movements. The first movement, which is a very lyrical invention, features a repeat of the development as well as the exposition. The second movement is a merry little creation. Sheppard plays the sonata very well. He’s equally successful in Op. 79, another relatively diminutive composition, which is actually subtitled Sonatina. This time there are three movements. Once again the opening movement, which is lively, includes a repeat of the development section. The brief andante, in 9/8 time, offers some moments of repose and the finale is full of a sense of well-being.
Then it’s on to the much more substantial fare of the “Waldstein” Sonata, Op. 53. This is aptly described by Sheppard as a ”life-affirming and positive work”. He also comments on the work’s “overall sense … of enormous drive and unbridled enthusiasm.” This is certainly reflected in his performance. He offers effervescent and joyful playing in the magnificent first movement. In what he calls the “introspective and sometimes painful” slow movement I admired particularly his control in the mysterious opening bars where it seems that Beethoven is groping for a tonal centre. He starts the final rondo with a good sense of tranquillity but later on there’s abundant strength in his playing. The final prestissimo is hugely energetic. Incidentally, the Andante favori, which Beethoven originally intended as the slow movement of this sonata but later discarded - probably correctly – is played as an appendix to this disc.
The second half of this recital began with Op. 54, which Sheppard rates as “one of the unsung heroes of Beethoven’s piano output”. In the first movement, in which, unusually, Beethoven included no repeats, Sheppard contrasts the two thematic ideas very well. I admired especially his athletic finger-work in the prolonged passages of staccato triplets. The second of the sonata’s two movements is marked Allegretto but Sheppard maintains that the ideal speed needs to be somewhere between Allegretto and Allegro. It seems to me that the speed for which he opts is pretty much ideal. The seemingly never-ending stream of semi quavers is rhythmically tricky but, of course, he’s equal to the challenge. The closing più allegro is exhilarating. He says the movement is fun to play – it sounds to be!
The recital ends with the great Appassionata Sonata, Op. 57.The whole work is derived from a few small pieces of musical material, which leads Sheppard to aver that this sonata shows us “Beethoven, the Master Architect”. In the first movement he lays out the portentous, brooding opening most atmospherically. Later, in the main body of the movement, his playing has tremendous dramatic thrust. Indeed, hereabouts he offers some of his most powerful pianism to date. It’s a huge, virile performance in which he conveys splendidly the grand rhetorical sweep of Beethoven’s conception.
In the Andante con moto he increases the pace slightly at bar 17, after the initial paragraph. That tempo modification isn’t marked in the edition of the score that I’ve been using. However, I think the change is justified by the rhetorical nature of the opening bars and the subtle change of character in the music at the point where Sheppard presses on a little. Naturally, and rightly, when the opening material is reprised towards the end of the movement, at bar 81, Sheppard eases back to his tempo primo. The furious, driving finale is then unleashed and the music surges along powerfully. Sheppard’s playing is tremendously fiery and propulsive. In fact his account of this prodigious movement is impassioned – but it’s controlled too. The final presto is thrilling and, unsurprisingly, the audience erupts at the end.
Having heard his
accounts of this sonata and of Op. 53 I think Craig Sheppard’s
decision to modify his chronological survey and to think of his
audience was entirely right. The order in which he presented these
sonatas was as logical as it was considerate of his audience.
The penultimate recital was another pianistic marathon, encompassing four sonatas and lasting over 90 minutes. It began with Op. 81a. Sheppard is very eloquent in the adagio introduction to the first movement and in the main body of the allegro he seems to me to find and convey nobility as well as energy. In the slow movement he puts across touchingly Beethoven’s sense of loss at the absence of his patron. I relished the joyous outburst with which the finale opens. The high spirits continue thereafter and Sheppard seems to revel in this celebratory music. This is a highly successful account of the sonata.
It was followed by Op. 90. At the time Beethoven composed this he was in a much happier frame of mind for some time, at least as regards the political situation in Europe, although his personal life continued to be turbulent. There are only two movements to this sonata and, uniquely he prescribed no repeats at all. I must admit I find the first movement rather hard to grasp. I don’t mean it in a pejorative sense when I say that the music seems to proceed in fits and starts. What seems to me to be the somewhat disjointed nature is certainly deliberate but the lack of a sense of flow doesn’t help my comprehension of the music, I find. The subsequent movement possesses just that sense of flow that I couldn’t find in its predecessor. It’s an easeful, lyrical creation. Beethoven’s making at the head of this movement includes the words “…und sehr singbar vorzutragen” (“with a very singing style of playing”). It seems to me that Craig Sheppard fulfils this requirement precisely. He gives a very happy reading of this sunny music and I enjoyed it immensely.
Op. 101 is the first of the final group of five sonatas, penned between 1816 and 1822, in which Beethoven, the great innovator, pushed back the boundaries of the piano sonata further and further. In the first movement of this sonata not only does he employ compound time but also he often places the notes across the beat. He thereby gives an uncertain feel to the rhythm even while the music is flowing. It’s an elusive movement and I admired Sheppard’s sensitive playing of it. The second movement is a kind of hybrid of quick march and scherzo. It’s an unconventional, jaunty piece with some unexpected harmonic shifts, which is well realised on this occasion. The indication at the top of the slow movement is Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (“Slow and full of longing.”) The second part of that injunction is crucial and it’s the key to Sheppard’s performance, I think. It’s a reflective meditation but one with much inner strength and I found him to be totally in tune with the nature of the music. The finale follows without a break and once again we notice the extra precision of instruction that Beethoven achieves through including tempo indications in German as well as the usual Italian. Here he ends his instructions with the words “… und mit Entschlossenheit” (“and with determination.”). Once more Sheppard is faithful in his execution of this demand. At the heart of the movement lies a four-voice fugue – the first fugue to be found in a Beethoven sonata, I think – and, as has been the case so often during this cycle, Sheppard’s playing of this passage is notable for its clarity. His reading of this sonata is an unqualified success and it’s rewarded with an ovation from the Seattle audience.
Not content with those three demanding works, Craig Sheppard then essayed in the second half of his programme, the Everest of sonatas, the mighty Hammerklavier. The scale of Beethoven’s ambition in this huge sonata can be seen in the fact that the length of Op. 106 is only some eight minutes less than the combined duration of the of the other three sonatas that were included in this one recital!
Sheppard projects the right blend of heroism and turbulence in the first movement. There’s abundant strength in his playing, allied to refinement when Beethoven calls for it. For me he conveys the epic sweep of this movement vividly. He makes the right use of the plethora of percussive accents that Beethoven wrote into the score and, all in all, I found this a bracing and invigorating reading of the music. He’s just as good in the explosive, vital scherzo. But then, after all the enormous energy that has characterised the first two movements Beethoven sets his pianist a very different and even more exacting test. The music of the Adagio explores unprecedentedly vast expanses and distant horizons. It’s a profound and powerful meditation and it’s as much a test of intellect as of technique. I admired greatly the subtlety and grandeur of Sheppard’s playing of this humbling music and I found it very moving, all the more so for being ‘live’ and not the product of who knows how much studio editing.
After nearly thirty minutes of demanding music, a longer expanse than in any previous sonata, Beethoven has an even greater challenge for those who would attempt to scale this pianistic peak. The vast finale is a daunting prospect, bristling with technical difficulties. The huge fugue makes prodigious demands and once again Sheppard’s playing is admirably clear. Not only does he evidence great technique in this performance but he also shows tremendous commitment. The brief cantabile section at bar 240 comes as balm after the intellectual rigour of the preceding ferocious musical argument. However, it’s but a brief stop at an oasis before Beethoven sets off again. As the performance gathered yet more momentum and tension I found myself wondering how one person can remember all these notes, let alone execute them. This is what’s meant by virtuosity. Sheppard brings to an end his electrifying reading, the audience cheers and the listener at home, caught up in the flood tide of the music, feels like joining in.
So ends an exhausting but hugely stimulating recital. Can Craig Sheppard sustain let alone follow this level of achievement?
Recital. 18 May 2004
The end of the journey is in sight but three sonatas, all of them highly demanding of both performer and listener, remain. None is on the vast scale of the Hammerklavier. and, in fact, as Craig Sheppard points out, in some ways these three works show Beethoven consciously returning to a more simple and direct style. Whilst that is true, this reversion does not mean a sacrifice of profundity; if anything, the reverse is true.
The opening of Op. 109 is rippling, free-flowing music, stripped back to essentials, and I like Sheppard’s verdict that the second subject “seems as if from another planet”. He drives forward the short second movement, prestissimo, with great purpose. The finale is a set of variations, the first time that Beethoven had employed such a form in the finale to a sonata. The theme is serene and Sheppard voices it to perfection. As the variations unfold that clarity in his playing, which I’ve come to value so highly, is once again to the fore. The variations are splendid, especially the first, fourth and the powerful sixth one. The quietly dignified reprise of the theme at the end of the movement – and the sonata – is a perfect QED. For once I’m glad that applause has been edited out; it would have intruded into the communing mood established by Craig Sheppard’s eloquent playing.
He describes Op. 110 as “the architectural gem of the last three sonatas.” I love the disarming simplicity of the very opening, excellently laid out by Sheppard. He unfolds Beethoven’s argument compellingly and logically and I rate his account of this movement very highly. After the short fiery interlude of the Allegro molto the finale begins with an aria, which is a lament of profound gravitas. The three-voiced fugue is Bachian in its complexity and resourcefulness. Yet again Sheppard impresses with the clarity of his playing in complex stretches such as this. There’s also abundant power in his playing. In Beethoven’s novel structure the aria returns and then the fugue reappears, this time in inverted form. It needs concentration and conviction on the part of the pianist if this is all to hang together properly but Sheppard is fully equal to Beethoven’s demands. In his hands the magisterial ending is done full justice.
And then comes
Op. 111. In this extraordinary two-movement piece Beethoven, in
Sheppard’s memorable phrase, “appears to have put every bit of his
compositional and spiritual genius into compressed form.” The
performance here is a worthy one. In the powerful, yet well-shaded
first movement introduction Sheppard offers playing full of suspense
and then in the allegro itself he’s vigorous and assertive but
equally adept at conveying the many subtleties of the piece. The
opening of the second movement, another set of variations, is marked
Adagio molto semplice e cantabile and Sheppard realises this
injunction perfectly. Throughout the variations that follow he
displays rapt concentration and offers some moments of exquisite
pianism, such as the passages marked leggieramente from bar
72 onwards. Eventually, and with seeming inevitability, Sheppard
brings the movement, and the cycle, home to a peaceful and profound
conclusion. Once again there is, happily, no applause to break the
moment. One wonders what thoughts passed through Craig Sheppard’s
mind as his Journey through the thirty-two sonatas came to an end.
First, a few words about the presentation of the set. The discs come in a box and are housed in jewel cases rather than slip covers. The booklet contains very good notes by Craig Sheppard himself, on which I’ve drawn quite a bit in the course of this review. In all the performances he used his own piano, a Hamburg Steinway D, which has a nice, full and mature tone. The sonority is impressive and never sounds forced even when Beethoven requires his pianist to play at full tilt. The recorded sound is both good and, crucially, consistent over the span of the seven concerts, although for some tastes it may seem that the piano has been recorded a bit too close. The one thing I should point out is that there’s quite a bit of pedal noise. That’s especially noticeable if listening through headphones but it also registers through loudspeakers. The audience, on the other hand, is commendably silent. The set comes on nine discs but I believe the retail price equates roughly to the cost of five full-price CDs.
And what can one say of the performances themselves? Well firstly, like the recorded sound, they strike me as being pretty consistent. Mr Sheppard is completely committed to the cause of the sonatas and plays them with deep understanding and excellent technique. I’m particularly struck by the evident care and affection he feels for some of the less well known earlier sonatas. He makes that clear in his notes and it comes across in his playing of them. I felt that his choice of tempi was pretty unfailingly judicious and, following the performances in the scores, I found that he is extremely alert to the observance of Beethoven’s markings. But these are anything but pedantically accurate performances: this pianist has a real feel for the style and sweep of the music and has obviously thought long and hard about Beethoven’s vision.
Above all these are real performances and, in the last analysis, that’s what makes them so special. These discs are not the product of aseptic studio takes with all the opportunities for correction and pasting together that studio work offers. No, Craig Sheppard has gone out on stage in front of real people and played for them. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a deal to release these recordings commercially was only concluded after the series of recitals had taken part and that the recordings were effectively a by-product of the concerts. Some editing has taken place, I understand, from the dress rehearsals but I’m more than ready to accept that editing has been kept to an absolute minimum: that’s certainly the way it sounds. These performances are the real thing and any very occasional minor technical slips are an insignificant price to pay for the sense of occasion that these recordings convey.
There can never be such a thing as a “definitive” cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Such an achievement lies beyond the grasp of one individual, I believe. In any case one would not wish to be without the insights of several pianists in this music – Brendel and Schnabel, despite his technical fallibilities, are just two names that spring immediately to mind in this connection. However, this cycle by Craig Sheppard deserves to be ranked among the very best. It is an involving, communicative, carefully considered, satisfying and deeply musical traversal of the thirty-two sonatas. There are significant gains to be captured through hearing an artist explore these wide ranging and very varied works in chronological order and I feel that I have a greater grasp of the scale of Beethoven’s achievement as a result.
I congratulate Craig Sheppard on this tremendous achievement. Roméo Records also deserve our congratulations and thanks for their enterprise in releasing these discs. Probably only a small independent label would have the courage and vision to do so and I hope they’ll be rewarded with strong sales.
It’s been a
fascinating and very rewarding experience to make this Journey with
Craig Sheppard as my highly reliable and stimulating guide. This has
been one of my listening highlights of the year and I urge those who
take Beethoven’s piano music seriously to take this Journey for