One of the towering monuments of the piano repertoire is Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" — two collections (or "books") of paired preludes...

Concert Review |

One of the towering monuments of the piano repertoire is Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” — two collections (or “books”) of paired preludes and fugues that traverse all 24 of the major and minor keys.

A raptly attentive audience heard University of Washington faculty pianist Craig Sheppard traverse Book II of the WTC, as the “Well-Tempered Clavier” is familiarly known, in the latest of a set of themed recitals covering major repertoire. Sheppard, who already has played all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, has also performed and recorded several of Bach’s major keyboard collections: the Goldberg Variations, the six Keyboard Partitas, the Inventions and Sinfonias, and Book I of the WTC. He is a pianist drawn to these huge-scale challenges, illuminating the architecture of the whole collection through his attention to details of each individual piece.

Book II of the WTC is a big program, lasting 3 ¼ hours, and requiring the utter concentration of both soloist and listener. This is music that demands you to listen, to pay attention, to think.

The WTC is like a map of Paris: there are thoroughfares, but the streets are a crazy quilt of intersecting byways and narrow little alleys, and it requires all your skill to make sense of your directions. And so it is with Sheppard’s Bach: a clear destination, but an unbelievably convoluted musical route to it (especially in some of those mighty fugues).

Sheppard’s fierce intensity, musical intelligence and unflagging concentration made for an enthralling journey through Book II, starting with the spacious and very personal reading of the C Major Prelude. The great variety inherent in all the preludes and fugues was echoed in Sheppard’s playing, which was by turns magisterial, playful, sharply articulated and smoothly flowing. All the manifold little details of these pieces were elucidated with rare clarity, some of them explosively forceful and others delicately expressive. In every respect, this recital was a remarkable achievement — one that will be documented in due course in a recording (watch www.craigsheppard.net for future details).

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com