Audiences rarely give a pianist three curtain calls and a standing ovation at intermission, but this happened on Saturday, June 5, when the superb Russian-American pianist Sergey Schepkin performed in recital at Harvard’s Dudley House. Schepkin is no stranger to either Boston or to standing ovations, or to this reviewer who has attended most of his concerts over the past eight years and once took several lessons on Scarlatti’s ornaments. Schepkin, on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon the past seven years, has long been one of Boston’s musical treasures.
For his Doctor of Musical Arts recitals, he famously performed, a month apart, Books One and Two of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and for many years after that was known, and highly regarded, as a “Bach pianist.” His CDs included Bach’s Six Partitas, WTC Books 1 and 2, the Italian Concerto, and the Goldberg Variations, which he recently re-recorded. So, it came as no surprise to hear a spellbinding performance at the opening of this recital of Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor,” BWV 903. Schepkin knows his way around a fugue, and Bach’s fugue here was a model of voicing and clarity. The large audience sat there, as in a trance. When Schepkin plays Bach, one enraptured audience member mused at intermission, “it feels like angels are present in the rafters.”
Recently, Schepkin has been exploring the late music of Johannes Brahms, following in the footsteps of the late Glenn Gould, a pianist renowned for his Bach, to whom Schepkin has been compared. At his last recital in Boston’s Steinert Recital Room, Schepkin played Opus 118, wonderfully, and tonight he played, for all they were worth, Four Pieces, Op. 119 (1892-93). Schepkin’s acute musical intelligence, brilliant technique, and innate sense of tempo allow him to make whatever he plays sound as if it is being played exactly as the composer intended. Schepkin played the three Intermezzi beautifully, saving up for the fireworks of the last piece, Rhapsody in E flat, where, sitting there in his customary quiet, still way, he let loose — in a very controlled way — and gave the audience some of the most thrilling moments of the evening.
French music has always been a large part of Schepkin’s musical life. One of his important influences was the legendary French-American pianist, Paul Doguereau, with whom he coached for four years. The same qualities that make Schepkin’s Bach and Brahms so impressive were deployed, to great effect, in this radically different repertoire, represented here by one of the rarely-played Nocturnes (# 6 in D Flat, 1894) of Gabriel Fauré, and by Twelve Preludes, Book One (1909-10) of Claude Debussy. Schepkin knew exactly what he wanted in these twelve Debussy pieces, each its own atmospheric sound world, full of myriad colors and moods. “What the West Wind Has Seen,” “Sounds and Perfumes Are Whirling in the Night Air” and “Footsteps in the Snow” received heart-stopping performances. The well-known “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” was beautiful simplicity itself.
After all this, the audience went wild, once again. For an encore that was possibly the evening’s highlight (so many to choose from!), Schepkin played Debussy’s wildly virtuosic “”L’isle joyeuse.” What a great evening. What a great artist.