Monday, 20 July 2009

Michael Sheppard Piano Recital / Review

Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (18 July 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 July 2009.

When one refers to American classical musicians these days, chances he or she has a Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Eastern European name. Thus it is refreshing to see an Anglo-Saxon American pianist in recital, and an unusual programme that steers away from the over-trodden Beethoven-Liszt-Rachmaninov axis.

Baltimore-based Michael Sheppard follows in the illustrious tradition of Earl Wild, Leon Fleisher and Van Cliburn, combining solid musical values with a hearty show of keyboard virtuosity. “Familiar” classics opened the recital, with Haydn’s Sonata No.32 in B minor, one where the modern concert grand is given full rein of its dynamics. Sheppard’s crystal clear and penetrating sound brought out its curious mix of disquiet and vertiginous display.

Gradually, Sheppard led his flock to places off the beaten path. The juxtaposition of Chopin’s lilting Barcarolle and South African Peter Klatzow’s Barcarole (note the subtle difference in spelling) was a brilliant one, astutely contrasting light and shadow. The latter took off from Liszt’s somber La Lugubre Gondola, and departed on a funereal journey through myriad harmonic landscapes. Sheppard’s own Invitation to Travel carried on the geography lesson, subjecting the simple opening phrases to a grand tour of variation and fantasy.

Transcription and improvisation plays a substantial part in the modern pianist’s arsenal. His transcriptions of three Samuel Barber songs – sensitively and sympathetically played – showed that Barber-Sheppard is worthy to be named alongside Schubert-Liszt, Rachmaninov-Wild and Rodgers-Hough.

Each half of the recital concluded with an operatic piano fantasy. Sigismond Thalberg (left) used to be a huge rival of Liszt, but his works are now largely forgotten. The championship of Thalberg’s Don Pasquale Fantasy, based on themes from Donizetti’s opera, is a worthy one, if only to highlight a favourite device of his – the simulation of three hands on the piano. This piece of pianistic hi-jinks was repeated in Summertime, with the melody flowing from both thumbs, in Earl Wild’s Grand Fantasy On Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Sheppard’s stupendous reading comes closest to the composer’s own brand of dare-devilry, reveling in forearm clusters in I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin, for example, and finishing off with a punishing upward octave glissando. His encores were a pleasant surprise; a high-class cocktail improvisation of Over The Rainbow, and something totally different – Schubert’s Musical Moment No.3. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

This recital was presented by DynamicWorkz.

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