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Schepkin’s Intelligent and Ingenuous French Suites

Jed Distler

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

Pianist Sergey Schepkin attracted much attention in the 1990s and early 2000s for his Ongaku recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Well-Tempered Clavier and Six Partitas. Returning to Bach for his Steinway label debut, Schepkin’s French Suites largely temper the highly ornamented style he favored earlier toward greater expressive economy, drawing more attention to the music than the pianist. He unfolds the D minor Suite’s Sarabande in a steady, stately manner that not only contrasts with András Schiff’s faster, lyrically phrased reading but also weighs the dissonances more effectively. The C minor Courante and Air dance off the pages with lilting contrapuntal interplay between the hands, while the lively and straightforward B minor Anglaise contains sharply contrasted legato and detached articulation. Yes, the G major Gigue is arguably too fast, but Schepkin’s pinpointed control is beyond criticism.

Pressed to pick a favorite, I’d go for the E-flat Suite’s individually characterized movements, notably in the Allemande, where where Schepkin’s vibrant, cello-like sonority enlivens the lower-register keyboard writing. Interestingly, Schepkin prefaces the E major Suite with the Prelude in the same key from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, and it turns out to be a perfect fit!

The clear- and even-sounding Hamburg Steinway featured in the French Suites contrasts to a more muted yet pungent-toned New York Steinway used for a freewheeling yet poetically proportioned account of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. The fugue’s basic tempo slows down slightly when Schepkin adds octaves toward the final climax, but somehow the textures don’t bog down or become generalized. Schepkin also plays the A minor Fantasia and Fugue twice, once on each piano, in markedly different yet equally convincing readings. The pianist’s annotations address issues of performance practice as intelligently and ingenuously as his keyboard artistry. Highly recommended.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: French Suites: Schiff (Decca), Hewitt (Hyperion), Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue: Hewitt (Hyperion), Tureck (Sony)

  • BACH, J.S.:
    Six French Suites BWV 812-817; Prelude in E major from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I; Fantasia and Fugue in A minor BWV 904 (two versions); Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue in D minor BWV 903

    Soloists: Sergey Schepkin (piano)

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