in: Reviews

December 9, 2011

Miraculously Deliberative Bach from Schepkin

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When Russian-American Sergey Schepkin lifted his hands, as if weightless, from the Steinway keyboard, it was if he were drawing himself and his audience out of some deliberative, meditative state, a state which he had miraculously summoned for 72 minutes. Deserved shouts of approval came from a very good-sized and fulfilled turnout, which stood to applaud his artistry in The Goldberg Variations, Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental “Aria with 30 Variations” BWV 988 (1741-42).

The Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Music presented Sergey Schepkin in its Faculty Recital Series on Thursday evening December 8th at its Tsai Performance Center. The concert was free and open to the public. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Schepkin studied at that city’s conservatory. Upon moving to the US in 1990, he became a student of Russell Sherman. During the current season, Schepkin is Visiting Associate Professor at Boston University and will be performing in Boston, other venues in the US, and Japan. His second recording of The Goldberg Variations was recently released under the King International Japan label.

During the hour-plus performance time, Schepkin literally rarely ever moved his body, head, or shoulders. It was the movement of his hands and, more specifically, that of his fingers that did the speaking. Except for a few slight pauses sprinkled here and there, his fingers never even left the keys. Throughout, his right foot on the damper pedal moved imperceptivity.

In the Bach Goldberg Variations, both hands are called upon to move in every conceivable way, in all kinds of directions: close together, far apart, in parallel motion, contrary motion, left and right hands crossing over and under each other. Observing Sergey Schepkin’s hands on the keyboard clearly informed the ear especially of Bach’s contrapuntal patterning and his melodic modeling. Resting the eyes, using ears only — no watching or looking around — also was a means of following the unbounded play of tempered sound from the master composer. This non-visual appreciation was due to Schepkin’s own technically and musically driven choices for such an ingenious musical composition.

Through the entire Goldberg Variations Schepkin showed remarkable insight through his tracing of Bach’s uncountable tonal patterns, his following Bach’s linear intricacies, and his understanding of the surprising harmonic implications of even the sparsest of his textures — all the while uncovering more than a few subtleties that for this listener had previously lain dormant. Detail by detail formed sections, sections to pieces, pieces to a single whole, this last realized by Schepkin’s virtually joining one variation to another.

Bar by bar the intensely chromatic Variation 25: Adagio grew more intriguing under his hands. An uncommon and touching humility in his rendering of the Aria da Capo, which closes the behemoth set, brought new meaning to it, as though Bach might have been saying, “Well, that is what I was able to do. Now, here again is the Goldberg theme, where we started.” Here, I believe it is fair to mention a few slips, including two particularly noticeable re-starts (which made Sergey Schepkin all the more human).

And by the way, Schepkin taking unusually deep bows and receiving three splendid bouquets of flowers, thankfully concluded his program with that Aria da Capo, and no encore.

For the first half of his recital, Schepkin programmed Six Piano Pieces, op. 118 (1893) by Johannes Brahms. In last of the six, Intermezzo in E-flat Minor (Andante, largo e mesto), Schepkin gave into its isolation and yearning, its piercing suspensions and tender resolutions, its bold interior statement. In the outer sections of the Ballade in G Minor (Allegro energico) his concretized phrasing and superb dynamics charged the electrical current from Brahms’s written score just right. As for the rest of the pieces, I thought there was either too much contrast or a penchant for overstatement.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net.

14 Comments

  1. Sergey Schepkin is one of my favorite pianists in Bach. I try never to miss a local performance, and I have all his CDs, including his 1995 recording of the Goldberg Variations. As enormous as his varied gifts may be, though – and they are vast – his performance of the Goldbergs on Thursday night was often insufferable. In fact, it was downright ugly at times, primarily in variations calling for velocity.

    The first glimmer of trouble was in Var. 5, a dazzling cross-hands tour de force whose fleet sixteenth-note grace was thrown over for a frantic scramble across the page. Like some other pianists, Mr. Schepkin tends to speed up during instances of technical stress, adding to the occasionally steely, hectic intensity.

    Alas, this was not the last instance where tempi felt impatient. The Goldbergs present a formidable challenge to live performance from Aria to Aria, of course, so no one variation’s imperfections need amount to much, but once again in Var. 14 he was off to the races. What was likely meant to be dizzying was almost nauseatingly rushed. 

    By the time Mr. Schepkin had plowed through Vars. 17, 20, and 26 at speeds rendering many of the composer’s best effects nearly incomprehensible, I was surprised to feel my former senses of alarm and disappointment degenerate into annoyance. This unwelcome feeling reached its zenith in Var. 29, as the pianist pummelled his way through Bach’s magnificently modulating arpeggios with an attack bordering on brutality.

    Despite the many remarkable features that one may expect to hear anytime Sergey Schepkin sits down to play Bach – especially including his exhilarating ornamental creativity and lucid sense of architecture – this recital was ultimately more punishing than rewarding. I know I wasn’t alone in this – many around me seemed a bit stunned after the applause died down, and I heard others express surprise at how fast he had taken things. 

    One of the great wisdoms of performance in the piano literature is this, I think: if you endeavor to play truly great music, trust it. Bach was an extraordinary virtuoso, and his complex and ever-challenging facility is written into the music. The variations mentioned above actually sound a little faster when taken a notch down and articulated with a cleaner, more compelling pulse. Even those pianists who take them crazy fast – at the top of the list, GG – are careful not to crush the music. I couldn’t help wondering if Sergey was trying to outrace a ghost. Frankly, I can think of no other way to account for the ugliness I heard.

    Comment by nimitta — December 10, 2011 at 5:53 pm

  2. Dear Nimitta:

    Thank you for your honest, take-no-prisoners account of my performance Thursday night. All too often, we performers are lulled to self-satisfaction by our fans; yet your opinion carries even more importance since you are a fan of mine, or so you say. As Pushkin wrote, the artist is one’s own harshest judge; and, trust me, I am not altogether happy how my performance went. Yes, it was, by and large, an off-night — end of the semester and all. Yes, the body failed me on some occasions. The ungrateful acoustic of the hall and the unregulated piano had something to do with it, too; a lot, actually. But, as everyone knows, a real performer should be able to rise over such trifles; and I would be the first to admit that I failed miserably in that department. Now, thanks to you, I know what to work on before I play the same program in Tokyo on December 22: I will make sure to slow down the tempi in Variations 5, 14, 17, 20, 26, and 29, perhaps to Rosalyn Tureck’s speeds (of her first recording); and I would make sure to take the tempi even slower than those. Of course, one could argue that it would be pursuing yet another ghost, but never mind! At the very least, such an approach would be devoid of “ugliness.” I will also make sure to add some silky pearliness (aka liquid gold) to the mix. As the Variations 5, 14, 17, 20, 26, and 29 are the only ones you referred to in your comment, I am interested to know what you thought of the rest; also what you thought of the Brahms. Please let me and the other readers know.
    All the best,

    Sergey Schepkin 

    Comment by Sergey Schepkin — December 11, 2011 at 12:57 am

  3. Validation for What We Do

    Sometimes, we at the Boston Musical Intelligencer (now commonly familiar as BMInt) hear that reviews have little value. Most common answers are, “I know what I thought of the performance” or “I do not want my experience colored”; then there’s “I find that many reviewers do not know what they are talking about.”

    Our standard answer is that we think of reviews in a much more positive way: as a method to help improve understanding of all that goes into a performance of music, as a way to hone readers’ perceptions and musical intelligence (hence, our name), and, just as important, as a vehicle for performance improvement.

    Our Esteemed Founder and Publisher Lee Eiseman also conceived that BMInt should allow our readers, so many of whom are knowledgeable concert-goers, to offer their opinions. They, too have proven very valuable. A couple of stellar examples have appeared in the last few days of the value of the latter, one in wholehearted support, the other, by inference, critical. Most heartening to Eiseman, and me, his humble servant, is the letter just published from Sergey Schepkin, on a review of his performance. We have heard similar expressions of gratitude from performers in the past, but this, I believe, is the first public acknowledgment and reflection on a road to amelioration. Sergey Schepkin, whom we know to be a super pianist, averred that this was not one of his best performances. Bravo to him. For the other type of response, we leave it to our readers to ascertain of which review we write. From personal experience, however, we do know that each of the individual performers in that particular concert is capable of much more. 

    Alla bella musica.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — December 11, 2011 at 12:22 pm

  4. Let us just underline that the newly-purchased piano heard in this concert was extremely unpleasant. This is not a remark about Mr. Schepkin’s playing. The instrument was quite grating and ugly in sound.

    Comment by Eusebius — December 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm

  5. I found David Patterson’s dismissal of four of the Brahms pieces downright wrong, especially the “too much contrast” and “penchant for overstatement.”  I know Opus 118 intimately, having spent much of the last year listening to and studying several dozen recordings of it.  I thought Mr. Schepkin’s performance was one of the best I had ever heard of all six pieces.  

    As for the nasty comments of Nimitta, again, I heard the same performance and found nothing the least bit “ugly.”  Tsai is a bad hall for piano, and that should be taken into account.  “Crushing the music” is, to my ears, ridiculous.  The clarity was there as was Mr. Schepkin’s usual brilliance.  

    If Nimitta feels this assured of him/herself as a critic of great performers, perhaps he/she should start writing criticism instead of being so thorough and negative in the comment section.  

    Comment by susan miron — December 11, 2011 at 3:42 pm

  6. I feel compelled to write after reading Mr. Schepkin’s extraordinarily humble reply to Nimitta’s brutal comments. I’m not as erudite as most of the contributors and commenters in the review section of BMint. But I have been playing and listening to piano for about a half century now, and I have to trust my own perceptions.
    Here was my experience:
    First, I am profoundly grateful to the people who developed and maintain this web site. Without BMint, I would not have known about the Schepkin concert and numerous other musical events. How lucky we are to live in Boston where dozens of musical performances occur every week, many of them free of charge.
    With regard to Tsai Performance Center, I sat in center of the second row of the balcony and found the sound of the Steinway to be quite good. Perhaps a bit weak in the low octaves, but otherwise clear and sonorous. Certainly, the piano and acoustics of the hall were adequate to convey Mr. Schepkin’s musical intent.
    Most importantly, I found Mr. Shepkin’s rendition of the Bach to be memorable in the best sense of the word. I won’t attempt to add more superlatives to David Patterson’s review. Sure, I could quibble with some of the tempi, there were some imperfections, some of the variations seemed to conclude a bit awkwardly, and Schepkin seemed to be tired towards the end. But this was a live performance, not a worked-over studio recording. This was a human being with extraordinary talent, performing for our enjoyment, delivering a musical message to us with clarity and sincerity. What more could one ask for? I left the concert with the feeling that I often have after a great performance: that if someone can do this, there is, after all, hope for the human race.

    Comment by Bob Domnitz — December 11, 2011 at 11:31 pm

  7. Dear Sergey
    I am touched that you happened upon this review and have given such a complicated response to my own. Since I sincerely consider you an artist of great stature and attainment, I had no doubt on Thursday night that you were less than perfectly content with how things went. It was evident that you were at odds with both the instrument and the hall. As you say, no excuses, of course, but these conditions are not entirely irrelevant, either. I empathize, and hope your instrument on the 22nd will be in better condition for you!
    Just as some will believe I misheard your performance, it is entirely possible that I misread your references to Rosalyn Tureck’s tempi, to ‘silky pearliness’ (!), and to your professed curiosity about other of my views. Even despite the unpleasant implications, I hope you were being facetious, and I very much look forward to hearing you again.
    Warm regards,
    Nimitta

    Comment by nimitta — December 12, 2011 at 12:32 am

  8. I believe it was Sir Laurence Olivier who said that he never read a review as “the bad ones are wrong and the good ones never good enough!” Pax

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm

  9. Nimitta, I believe it was Emmet Fox who said “Criticism is an indirect form of self-boasting.”  It is your review that is “ugly” not the less-than-perfect performance of the artist.

    Comment by KopKing59 — December 14, 2011 at 8:35 pm

  10. With friends like Nimitta, who needs enemies?  I hope BMint can attract contributors who are a little more even-handed and certainly less arrogant and acidic when criticizing earnest performers.  It is extremely unpleasant for true music-lovers to see any artist humiliated in this way. Unfortunately, there will always be a tiny minority who believe in their own superiority and perfection but I hope this fine journal can encourage a more reasoned and respectful tone from those choosing to contribute their comments.  

    Comment by James Groden — December 15, 2011 at 9:09 am

  11. I thought Mr. Schepkin was terrific. He didn’t deliver everything perfectly that’s for sure but I was still thankful for the music he gave us. Let’s not forget that it was a free concert so what’s there to complain about? I guess some people in the audience just like to take every opportunity show-off how smart they are but I’d rather listen to the music than someone’s high falutin opinion.  So I’ll take my own cue, shut-up and play a CD now.  To all musicians, keep up the good work. We need you inspired and motivated.
    Gratefully yours,  

    Comment by Malcolm Smithys — December 15, 2011 at 9:31 am

  12. Dear fellow commentators,

    I appreciate your thoughts more than you know. Rereading my response to Mr. Patterson’s review, I cringe a bit at the snarkiness in a couple of my comments, and I don’t blame any of you for jumping to Sergey Schepkin’s defense. Although I agree with him that the artist is one’s own harshest judge, I know that discernment doesn’t require harshness, and I regret where my words sounded unpleasant. 

    One of the things that is quite apparent from some of the comments since then is that the context of my observations wasn’t clear. Let me try to clarify a few things.

    First, I was not intending to review the recital, merely to give my honest impressions of the performance of the Bach in response to a review that was entirely positive about it. As I tried to make clear, there were quite a few variations – I named 6 – where I heard the pianist drastically rushing the tempi and verging into harshness. (I can relate!) I only mentioned these because in each it got to the point of detracting significantly from the communication of the astonishing musical ideas at work – ideas that on other occasions this artist has articulated with remarkable lucidity and originality. 
    Alas, there were several instances where the results last Thursday night were downright unpleasant to my ears and to some others’, so I thought to offer this simply to balance Mr. Patterson’s uniformly laudatory account. Sorry, friends, but these ears heard some serious pressing that night, and some ugly sounds along with the beautiful ones. I was careful to indicate that there were also rewards, as always with a Schepkin Bach recital – more on them below.

    Now, saying anything at all negative about a fellow musician is rare for me. Offhand, I don’t recall any comments I’ve ever made at BMInt that weren’t in support of musicians, especially regarding performances of the BSO. This is only natural, since I myself began performing professionally at a young age, many decades ago, and have long prized encouragement above the goad. 
    This was why I was careful to stress that I am an ardent admirer of Sergey Schepkin – more so, perhaps, than any who’ve leapt to his defense on this page. I know his oeuvre intimately. Indeed, I would characterize myself as belonging to a tiny minority who believe in Sergey’s superiority. Not ‘perfection’, though, insofar as I believe that concept is a red herring never to be expected or even contemplated in music.

    In retrospect, I wish now that my tone had conveyed even more of the profound respect I hold for this great artist. This doesn’t mean I can truthfully retract the parts about those several specific instances that pained these wide open ears, or where Bach’s architecture felt squeezed into a bottle. 
    I can, however, elaborate on my first comment’s underlying premise: whenever Sergey Schepkin plays this repertoire, even on an ‘off’ night, there are wonders too numerous to catalog. As I thought my words made clear, I regard that as a given, and last Thursday was no exception. From among many highlights, I’ll simply note the marvelous layering of the first several Canons; the jauntiness of the Gigue; and, the astringent majesty of the Ouverture and Fughetta.
    Let me also add that I seem to have enjoyed Brahms’ Op. 118 a good deal more than the reviewer. The effect of the familiar A Major Intermezzo was especially wise and touching, I felt. Oddly, the performance that I found least persuasive, the Ballade, elicited special praise from the reviewer. 
    That brings me to a final point for now. I have to respectfully disagree with one of you who claimed we heard the same performance. As far as I have learned, that is neither possible nor desirable. I would gently suggest that the proof of both the former and latter is emblazoned on these pages.
    Warm regards, and I look forward to more listening alongside you!
    Nimitta

    Comment by nimitta — December 15, 2011 at 1:07 pm

  13. James, since when the individuals who have own opinion become “tiny minority” and since when a “tiny minority” become not the something that express superior judgment? James, are you missing too mach the hoi-polloi entertainment of mass-media music criticism? We have plenty of it in mainstream music “journalists” and we have seen writers who pimp artists and trumping their promoters. BMint does not need “even-handedness” of your version. BMint needs authors with attitude and characters, authors with well-defined own version of superiority own version of perfection. I can only assure you that the more bitey and more teethhy BMint writers were the more worthy artists be benefited.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — December 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm

  14. Romy The Cat, I’m a dog-lover myself, but I accept your point that everyone is entitled to their opinion and that BMint should not become a bland canvas for neutrality. However, the even-handedness I call for is simply a degree of respect for the artist. Criticism when sensitively and constructively aired can be invaluable but it is a fine line and I believe BMint has a responsibility to consider that line when a reader’s comments go too far. It cannot become a den of denigration with the poor artist maligned to any extreme. Interestingly, I note that Nimitta has since expressed some regret, even admitting that some comments were “snarky”.  That is good of Nimitta and also conducive to a more respectful tone to be struck when offering critiques of performers. That is not censorship or over-protecting artists from criticism, but merely ensuring they get the same basic respect that any human being deserves. 

    Comment by James Groden — December 15, 2011 at 7:02 pm

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