With the first Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Sergey Schepkin opened his new concert series, this season devoted to “Bach at 333” and dedicated to the memory of pianist and arts patron Harriet Carey (1951-2011). On Sunday, before a full house at First Church in Boston, Schepkin projected each note with vivid clarity yet also created overwhelming continuity and momentum, building effortlessly to an inexorably logical conclusion. Like the proof of Euclid’s first theorem, Bach’s Prelude seemed to deploy and summarize the master’s received wisdom while simultaneously pointing to the future. Thereafter, intense control would surprisingly unleash spontaneity in late Bach and Debussy. Both composers reached back to antiquated musical forms at the ends of their lives, seeking to affirm pure music even as they innovated.
Cellist Owen Young of the BSO joined Schepkin for Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, composed in 1915, when Debussy was already stricken with the cancer that would kill him in 1918. Schepkin and Young fruitfully exploited the tempi, rendering the “slow, sustained and resolute” prologue with elegiac splendor, tinged with fatalism, with the piano taking on a bell-like sonority at the end, as the cello climbed to a high register, mysterious and airy. They imbued the second movement Sérénade with the serio ludere charm of Couperin as a framework, but giving rampant inventiveness and free exploration to the rapid shifts of moods and gripping surprises. The finale, “animated, light-hearted and nervous” evoked plenitude, with lovely sheets of dissonance and magic, at once impish, elegant and restrained.
Debussy’s Syrinx (1913) constituted the first addition to the very scant repertoire for solo flute since C. P. E. Bach’s sonata from 1747 (the same year as the Musical Offering). Deborah Boldin owned the piece, conveying tragic pleading, then loss of hope, then sinking away. So much beauty and tragedy in three brief minutes.
The son of a Communard who was jailed in 1871, the youthful Debussy had served as resident pianist at Chenonceaux, the most exquisite of the Loire chȃteaux. For Debussy’s last work, the Sonata for Violin and Piano of 1917, Jason Horowitz joined Schepkin for an exquisitely self-controlled and lyrical aria in the first movement, his subtle and delicate violin prompting Schepkin’s piano to emerge from troubling shadows to a rippling serenity. Both musicians combined leaps of inspirations with sudden restraint, evoking all that Debussy loved about the French tradition, so far removed in its immediacy from the pomp and brutal grandiosity of Wagner. The second movement “Intermède” unfolded exactly as Debussy intended, “fantastical and light,” allowing surprising musical exploration into complex textures and undiscovered sound regions. In the “very animated” Finale, a silvery, fountain-like piano sang a duet with a plaintive violin, transfiguring man’s fate into eternal sonority.
Responding to the challenge of King Frederick II to improvise on the monarch’s new fortepiano using a theme provided by his excellency, Bach effortlessly reeled off a three-voice fugue, but when challenged to improvise a six-voice fugue he is said to have replied that he would need more time. The resulting score sent to the King was the Musical Offering, a collection of 10 canons, the 3- and 6-voice fugues, capped by a four-movement trio sonata.
Other than the Trio Sonata, which Bach scored for flute, violin and continuo, the performers have substantial freedom in choosing how to realize the pieces. In this reading, most of the canons were taken by flute, violin or cello, and harpsichord; in some cases, both cello and harpsichord formed the continuo. After a breath-taking reading of the Canon a 4, the magnificent Ricercar a 6, played by all four soloists, unusually, but very effectively, came last.
Schepkin set the proceedings in motion with the Ricercar a 3 at the piano. Boldin, Horowitz and Young then joined Schepkin, now at the harpsichord, for seven of the short canons, Boldin’s flute floating above it all, constantly seeking heaven, Young’s cello expressing human longings in the bass. The King’s theme took on stunningly dramatic form with the long Fuga Canonica in Epidiapente, the emotional effectiveness and almost trance-like power continuing into the trio sonata, lyrical and soulful in the Largo, the flute soaring and the cello sobbing. The lively, dancing Allegro and the brief Andante allowed us to take a breath, only to be caught up into a marvelously dense vertigo with the vivacious concluding Allegro. The very brief Quaerendo Invenietis delivered a short emotional respite, as Bach asks the performer to figure out how to turn the brief musical line into a canon; Shepkin offered two of the four possible solutions, the second one producing an astonishing and particularly delightful rumbling in the bass — evocative of John Cage — that delighted the audience and the onstage performers equally. After the decisive Canon a 4, Schepkin moved back to the piano and all joined in for the magnificent, stately Ricercar a 6, concluding the Offering and the concert with transcendent power and a relentless elation driven to ever increasing vastness.
Shepkin’s new series seems to distinguish itself in the variety it promises: solo literature, chamber works, and vocal morceaux from pre-Baroque to Modern. The founder discusses his motivations HERE.
For the next installment, Sergey Schepkin will play Bach’s Six Partitas for keyboard on October 21st. The full season listing are HERE,.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.