The Baroque Era in western classical music is supposedly named for the Portuguese word that means, misshapen pearl. These performances of the JS Bach Partitas set one to thinking, backwards, and forwards.
We first have to cope with the use of the modern piano, instead of say, the harpsichord. If Wanda Landowska made playing Bach on the harpsichord in concert a signal of our ongoing return to original or period instruments, Bach on the modern piano is still very much with us. Liszt encouraged pianists to play Bach, and partly because of his genius, Liszt got away with playing Bach in public when for most music lovers, the old Baroque master was a historical watermark, mainly acknowledged for the pedagogical values of learning to play his music.
The later rediscovery of Bach and Handel had a lot to do with Baron van Swieten in Vienna, plus Mendelssohn's advocacy (would the St. Matthew Passion have been completely lost?), plus later figures like Edwin Fischer, Busoni, Egon Petri (a Busoni student and protégé), and above all most recently, Canadian piano genius Glenn Gould.
Thanks to miracles of modern information technology, Glenn Gould's Bach performances have been deftly analyzed, so that his trailblazing piano performance of the Bach Goldberg Variations, first released in about 1955, is now recreated, recorded, and available in state of the art super audio sound. See the Zenph re-performance series soon to appear on the shelves.
Bach kept being resolutely played and programmed by a gaggle of pianists in each successive generation. Then along comes Joao Carlos Martins. He immerses himself in all the keyboard works, and climbs another high peak by way of a much more Romantic manner of Bach playing. Then along comes Sergey Schepkin.
He is just himself. His approach to playing Bach on the piano partly eludes description. You get the brilliant clarity and ski-sloped vigor of Glenn Gould's style, plus a whole contrary dimension of wit, fantasy, earthiness, and emotion - qualities we would otherwise associate mainly with the later Romantic schools of Bach performance.
In Schepkin's hands, the old master comes off sounding like a much closer brother to Domenico Scarlatti - or even Rameau.
The stiff, gruff Lutheran piety so disappointed by earthly life is gone from Schepkin's performances, as it variously was absent from both Glenn Gould and Joao Carlos Martins. Instead we get just bucket-loads of sheer joy, a depth of fantasy and imagination that yet does not distort or violate period practice fundamentals, re-imagined, crafted to the modern piano. Schepkin's magic is partly due to his free and improvisatory way with Baroque ornamentation. He is near as florid as Handel in the operas - or Reinhold Keiser, or C.H. Graun. He brings a vocal, operatic sense of embellishment to the long, winding, intertwining Bach polyphonies. Rather like what violinist Andrew Manze does on his fiddle with this sort of period-informed performance practice.
There is absolutely nothing of the dry, laborious keyboard exercise here. And I have not always been a fan of everybody playing the Bach Partitas.
In addition to the high intelligence and wit, Schepkin manages also to convey a dimension of play, of kaleidoscopic gaming that still remains earthy and folk-loric. At times, the sophistication of this playing will probably remind you of Rameau's courtly, satin-clad harpsichord music. Artifice strangely elaborating the best of untutored, illiterate Nature.
Well, go get this first volume of the Bach Partitas, and maybe the second volume, too.
After you listen a while, who cares what I say? Very, very highly recommended. Along with Gould and Martins, Schepkin is our main Bach man, shedding all manner of varied lights and genius on the composer as he can be revealed on the cornucopian resources of the modern piano. And these two red book discs of the complete Bach Partitas are only the beginning. Schepkin has recorded a whole lot more. Oh yeah.