Last week at the University of Washington's Meany Hall, a distinguished concert pianist on the music faculty performed one the great glories of the keyboard repertory to an audience more remarkable for its enthusiasm than its size. Craig Sheppard's account of the first book of Johann Sebastian Bach's monumental "Well Tempered Clavier" generated enthusiasm for his remarkable qualities as a pianist and showed once again the astonishing power and range of musical expression that Bach achieves in these apparently formalistic pieces.
Playing his own warm-toned Hamburg Steinway, Sheppard from the beginning (the famously simple, and famously difficult to interpret, Prelude in C) to the end (a fine performance of the lengthy and impassioned narrative Fugue in B minor which concludes the sequence) showed pianism of a high order. His is not a reticent approach to playing Bach on the modern piano. He engages the instrument's full resources of tone and pedals in the task; he does not peck at the music. This pays off most handsomely in the sustained and inward minor key fugues in C sharp, D sharp, F, F sharp and B which are amongst the great glories of the first book of the "Forty Eight". In such pieces, Sheppard brought out fully and powerfully the unpredictable, almost rhapsodic, quality which distinguishes Bach's fugues from those of almost all other composers. Unless the listener has them memorized, it is impossible to guess what is going to happen next. Bach will always surprise you.
Equally remarkable were the delicacy and lightness of touch Sheppard brought to some of the preludes, and the flash and vigor with which he delivered, for example, the Preludes in G major and B flat major. Sheppard may not be the most relaxed or relaxing artist to watch, but where needed charm, lightness, and deftness are always present in the sound.
The recital was one of a sequence of faculty recitals which Professor Sheppard has given and recorded live. In 2005, he played all six Bach keyboard Partitas in a single concert, since issued impressively in compact disc format. He has done the same for the Two and Three part Inventions. Before he started his public exploration of Bach, he played and recorded live all 32 Beethoven sonatas. It can only be a matter of time before Sheppard offers the second book of Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier." It will be an occasion not to be missed.
Sheppard is a major artist. So why was the hall no more than a quarter or a third full? Like any other university with a music performance program, the UW offers public performances by faculty members and students. In May, for example, there are interesting faculty recitals by eminent bassoon and clarinet performers, and the opera program will perform Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Whether or not these programs are on the scale that one might expect from an institution of the UW's size and importance, it seems doubtful that they make the contribution that they might make to Seattle's musical life overall. Audiences seem generally on the small side and do not seem to include large numbers from outside University circles. The UW scored impressively in the funding sweepstakes at the Legislature this year, so maybe they can put some more effort into promotion of their musical resources to the wider community.