Yesterday at the New Music School in Cambridge, pianist Sergey Schepkin gave a stunningly beautiful, and deeply impactful performance of three landmark Romantic pieces: Schubert’s Six Moments Musicaux (Op. 94), Brahms’s Eight Piano Pieces (Op. 76), and Schumann’s Carnaval (Op. 9). What made the performance so remarkable is that the distinctive aesthetic vision of each of the three composers was powerfully delineated and conveyed. It was as if Schepkin, in studying each score, had penetrated to the very core of the composer’s personality.
In the case of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, Schepkin boldly emphasized contrasts, allowing Sturm und Drang passion to collide with tender melodiousness, creating a realm of expressivity in which ecstasy and pain mingled in rapidly shifting symbiosis. Schepkin revealed Schubert’s ability to create a sui generis realm, irreducible to words or pictorial elements, yet semantically clear — pure music, if you will, conveying affect inexpressible in any other medium.
For Brahms, Schepkin emphasized the myriad complex layers that criss-cross in the score, evoking a complex polyphony overflowing with lyrical desire, yet bridled and re-bridled with an acute and manly irony. Schepkin avoided any trace of the sentimentality that is too often suffused into Brahms. Seemingly having thought deeply about the magnificent entangled bank character of Brahms’s eight pieces, Schepkin restored the composer’s full plenitude of complexity.
Schepkin gave the closer, Schumann’s Carnaval, surprising and substantial coherence, without ever abrogating the disjointed colors, flashes, moods and bickering that emerge vignette by vignette. He imbued the Sphinxes with a marvelously profound reading as well as a newly convincing place at the heart of human delirium. He gave Chopin his own enigmatic due and summoned a wonderfully dynamic and devilishly mysterious Paganini. By clustering some of the sequential elements together breathlessly and then pacing others more distantly, Schepkin moved constantly between a sort of dark abyss and surface exuberance. The sketches’unity without homogeneity [does this sound like frei aber einsam or frei aber froh?] led to a strikingly revitalized March of the Davidsbϋndler. More celebratory than defiant, the performer seemingly affirmed the composer’s faith in the carnivalesque love and life. I asked to my right and to my left: the feeling was unanimous — best Carnaval ever. The encore, a rich and emotional reading of Schumann’s Arabesque, closed a thrilling evening.
Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent article is on Atomism and providence in 17th-century England.