Sergey Schepkin Revisits Bach’s Partitas

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Sergey Schepkin first recorded Bach’s Partitas in the late 1990s for the Ongaku label. The performances stood out for contrapuntal clarity, technical bravura, and arguably over-the-top embellishments at times. Nearly 20 years later, Schepkin has rerecorded the Partitas, and his conceptions have evolved in many respects. He now observes all of the repeats, and has tempered his erstwhile crisp articulation with more legato phrasing, plus more noticeable yet nonetheless discreet use of the pedal. This especially applies to the Sarabandes, where formerly clipped bass lines are rounder and more sustained. In turn, the melodies sing out to more communicative effect; compare the new Partita No. 4’s Sarabande to its earlier version and you’ll hear the difference.

Schepkin’s rhythm remains steady, yet he loosens up when so inclined, especially in the less cut-and-dried slower, lyrical movements. You notice this in the Partita No. 1’s Praeludium, where the right-hand line pushes ahead and pulls back. The same Partita’s Menuets are quicker and brasher this time around. The final Gigue is considerably faster as well, but less controlled than before. Schepkin generally retains his original, well-chosen tempos throughout No. 2, but tones down the embellishments.

No. 3 markedly improves over its predecessor. For example, Schepkin now gives more weight and gravitas to the Burlesca’s rolled chords, while the Gigue, by contrast, is altogether leaner and lighter. If Schepkin’s introduction to No. 4’s Ouverture still seems unconvincingly headlong and glib for such ceremonial music (Kapell, Gould, Hewitt, and Perahia are closer to its characterful mark), his firmly grounded Courante and Gigue compensate.

Schepkin’s way with No. 5 has matured with age, gaining palpable shape and direction. However, some listeners may take issue with his insistent underlining of the Tempo di Minuetto’s cross-rhythms, in contrast to the earlier traversal’s clarity and restraint. No. 6’s lengthy opening Toccata is still on the fast side, albeit with more breathing room, but the Allemande has gained considerable expressive profile over time and reveals Schepkin at his best. The pianist’s bouncy Corrente of old returns in a more refined and subtly articulated state, while the Gigue’s additional tonal heft reinforces the movement’s sense of finality.

To be sure, the Ongaku Partita cycle still offers much to enjoy, and also includes the Four Duets and the Overture in the French Style. At the same time, Schepkin’s interpretations have clearly evolved and matured, and deserve a place very close to the top of the list.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Murray Perahia (Sony); Zhu Xiao-Mei (Mirare); Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)

  • Sergey Schepkin (piano)

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