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Thursday, May 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Concert Review

Beethoven journey: a resounding finale

Seattle Times music critic

Concert review


Craig Sheppard, pianist, in final performance of recital series, "Beethoven: A Journey." Meany Theater, Tuesday night.
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It has taken seven evenings, spread over two concert seasons, for Craig Sheppard to traverse the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven — a journey, indeed. Many in Tuesday night's audience have been with Sheppard every step of the way; others joined in, as the crowd of listeners in Meany Theater seemed to increase with every performance.

The last three sonatas — Op. 109, 110 and 111 — were on the seventh program Tuesday evening. They are not the most difficult (that distinction probably is held by the massive "Hammerklavier" Sonata, Op. 106), nor are they the most beloved (the nicknamed sonatas, such as "Moonlight," "Appassionata" and "Waldstein" are played and recognized more often). But in their own way, these last three are the greatest interpretive challenge.

Here Beethoven pushes the boundaries of form and structure, leading the player in convoluted pathways that plumb the extremes of compass, style, volume and speed.

Sheppard meets all these challenges as an important pianist at the height of his powers. His playing conveys a sense of being on the edge, with the intensity of a coiled spring behind every note. Sometimes the music is tumultuous and headlong, with an improvisatory quality that suggests the player is newly inspired as he goes along. And sometimes it's all elegant simplicity, as a rush of chords dwindles down to a note or two.

Much of the greatest music was distilled in a single melodic line in the right hand, which Sheppard brought out with an expressive, singing quality that made the most of the melodies.

Sheppard is a master at building tension bit by bit, shaping the structure of these great sonatas as they wax and wane and wax again. In the final sonata, he commanded an amazing variety of touch in just a few bars: blistering attacks in which his hands were snatched away, as if burnt by the keys; feather-light fingers that conveyed an otherworldly effect. He left the sustaining pedal down at the end of the first movement, finally allowing the second movement to rise from the resulting haze of sound.

At the conclusion, the large crowd rose for a standing ovation and repeated curtain calls. Sheppard announced from the stage that he couldn't play an encore after those final sonatas, and he was right: Anything else would have been superfluous.

CDs and DVDs of this series will be available this fall, allowing many others to share in the Beethoven series (for information, visit www.craigsheppard.net). This is a journey well worth revisiting.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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