The Latest Installment of Craig Sheppard’s “Mostly Brahms” Series

United StatesUnited States Brahms: Craig Sheppard (piano), Meany Hall, Seattle, 20.4.2012 (BJ)

Craig Sheppard began the latest in his series of “Mostly Brahms” programs with a piece that is partly Brahms: the master’s indeed masterly left-hand-piano arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s D-minor Partita for solo violin. His performance did ample justice to both composers. The rest of the recital’s first half was devoted to the Seven Fantasies, Op. 116, and here it was interesting to note the emphasis, in the pianist’s program note, on the sense that, in Brahms’s late piano music, we—both as listeners and as performers—“often feel we’re eavesdropping on an intimate conversation, a truly private moment.” His actual performance of these magical pieces was certainly attentive to that aspect of the music, and yet the episodes of relatively emphatic passion and brilliance also received their due.

I would say that the balance between intimacy and extroversion was beautifully realized in the Opus 116 pieces, and that balance continued to operate after intermission, with a fine reading of the Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79. The program ended with the much earlier Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Sheppard’s conception of this great work came as something of a surprise to me, though a thoroughly welcome one: I have never thought of this as music of strikingly virtuoso character, but Sheppard played it with so consuming and irrepressible a forward impulse as to emphasize the brilliance and technical complexity of the work. Again, there was no shortchanging of its quieter aspects. What we were presented with was a marvelously stimulating interweaving of sometimes positively volcanic eruptions with moments where the composer, and his interpreter, seemed to be telling us secrets.

The emphasis of the playing was all on lines rather than on individual notes. There were some little pauses from time to time, which gave Brahms’s rhetorical points just the air they needed to make their effect; such devices were just like what a good conductor does for a singer. My only slight quibble might be aimed at the way Sheppard played the last of the variations, where the difference in note-values between the third beat of each measure and the other three could have been more incisively realized: while the difference could be heard in his performance, it may have been discernible—perhaps as a result of the sheer engulfing energy his performance had built up—only to a listener who already knew it was there in the score. (I know it’s in a sense unfair to compare a live performance with a recorded one, because many things can be managed in the recording studio that are much harder to achieve in the concert hall. But if you listen to Garrick Ohlsson’s recording of the work, you will hear, in his treatment of the variation in question, that comparable vigor is in no way incompatible with total clarity of texture.)

As a triumphant conclusion, however, the overall unity of Sheppard’s conception meant that the work’s concluding fugue, though obviously contrapuntal, emerged as still in sonata style. It was wonderfully tumultuous, yet never unsteady. Altogether, the performance of the Handel Variations brought to a worthy and indeed thrilling end an evening when all the elements in this gifted musician’s armory—one little memory slip aside—were working superbly.

Bernard Jacobson