CHOPIN Piano Sonatas Nos 2 & 3. Mazurkas Op 59
Craig Sheppard, the Philadelphia-born pianist who turns 70 this year, has built a remarkable career by almost any standard. He studied with Eleanor Sokoloff at Curtis and at the Juilliard School with Sasha Gorodnitzki. Later, during two decades’ residence in London, he worked with Kabos, Feuchtwanger and Curzon. His discography is not insubstantial, ranging from Shostakovich and Debussy, all the Beethoven sonatas and the Diabellis to Schubert, Schumann, Liszt and great stretches of Bach. Since 1993 he has made Seattle his centre of operations. He subtitles his new Chopin disc for Roméo ‘The Essence of an Iron Will’. It draws on two live performances at Meany Theatre in Seattle recorded this past February.
Sheppard’s Chopin is straightforward and unaffected, making its points with a secure grasp of the composer’s rhetoric. A robustly rhythmical F minor Fantasy has sweep and a certain jauntiness, though something of the same rhythmic precision when applied to the trio of the Funeral March in Op 35 comes off as monotonous. Sheppard’s fleet fingers point up interesting harmonic implications in both the Presto finale of Op 35 and the Scherzo of Op 58. In the Mazurkas, Op 59, it sounds as though genuine magic is occurring, particularly in terms of rubato and voice‑leading.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to be little more than vague in describing this recital. Whether due to the peculiar acoustical characteristics of the hall, to microphone placement or to sound enhancement in the editing process, the sound on this recording leaves a great deal to be desired. The piano sounds bloated, when not waterlogged, clangorous in the treble and boomy in the bass, making it virtually impossible to discern the quality and shading of Sheppard’s sound, and occasionally even distorting attack and release. And what a shame it is, since there seems to be a great deal of compelling interest here, though much of it is lost trying to ‘listen around’ this unnatural sound reproduction.