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.