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Bach: The Six French Suites / Sergey Schepkin

Release Date: 11/11/2014
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30046
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach Performer:  Sergey Schepkin Number of Discs: 2
Recorded in: Stereo

"A formidable Bach pianist who plays with the clarity of a harpsichordist and the passion and drama of a young Glenn Gould." -- NEW YORK TIMES

The distinguished pianist Sergey Schepkin, one of today's foremost interpreters of J.S. Bach's keyboard works, marks his Steinway & Sons label début with a double CD album that couples Bach's complete French Suites with two of his Fantasias & Fugues. International Piano magazine selected Schepkin's recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier I as one of the finest ever. His second recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, released in Japan in 2010, was nominated as Editor's Choice by the Geijutsu arts magazine.

Album Credits:

Read more Recorded 2011-2013 at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston.
Producer: Sergey Schepkin
Recording and Editing: Patrick Keating
Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner

Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Design: Oberlander Group
Piano: Steinway Model D
Cover Painting: The Foursome, c. 1713 by Jean-antoine Watteau


Pianist Sergey Schepkin attracted much attention in the 1990s and early 2000s for his Ongaku recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Well-Tempered Clavier and Six Partitas. Returning to Bach for his Steinway label debut, Schepkin’s French Suites largely temper the highly ornamented style he favored earlier toward greater expressive economy, drawing more attention to the music than the pianist. He unfolds the D minor Suite’s Sarabande in a steady, stately manner that not only contrasts with András Schiff’s faster, lyrically phrased reading but also weighs the dissonances more effectively. The C minor Courante and Air dance off the pages with lilting contrapuntal interplay between the hands, while the lively and straightforward B minor Anglaise contains sharply contrasted legato and detached articulation. Yes, the G major Gigue is arguably too fast, but Schepkin’s pinpointed control is beyond criticism.

Pressed to pick a favorite, I’d go for the E-flat Suite’s individually characterized movements, notably in the Allemande, where where Schepkin’s vibrant, cello-like sonority enlivens the lower-register keyboard writing. Interestingly, Schepkin prefaces the E major Suite with the Prelude in the same key from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, and it turns out to be a perfect fit!

The clear- and even-sounding Hamburg Steinway featured in the French Suites contrasts to a more muted yet pungent-toned New York Steinway used for a freewheeling yet poetically proportioned account of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. The fugue’s basic tempo slows down slightly when Schepkin adds octaves toward the final climax, but somehow the textures don’t bog down or become generalized. Schepkin also plays the A minor Fantasia and Fugue twice, once on each piano, in markedly different yet equally convincing readings. The pianist’s annotations address issues of performance practice as intelligently and ingenuously as his keyboard artistry. Highly recommended.

-- Jed Distler,

"Renowned pianist and J.S. Bach interpreter Sergey Schepkin offers his listeners a stellar Steinway & Sons record label debut with Bach: The Six French Suites (Steinway & Sons, 30046)... Mr. Schepkin’s technical skills and innate virtuosity are integral in bringing the Baroque embellishments and ornamentation (originally written for the harpsichord or clavichord) to his Steinway piano and to the ears of a modern listener. This he does with refreshingly, tempered adjustments in delightful, varying degrees that do not sound converted. His technique only a master pianist can accomplish... Overall, Bach: The French Suites by pianist Sergey Schepkin is an excellent recording that takes the listener ‘Back to Bach’ in a thoroughly modern way."

-- Paula Edelstein, AXS

Sergey Schepkin reinvigorates Bach’s six French Suites with modern flair. The suites were written for solo harpsichord, but the Russian-born, Boston-trained pianist harnesses all the color, nuance, and dynamic of the modern piano for his own distinct interpretation of these pieces.


This is a particularly lovely account of Bach’s French Suites on modern piano by Sergey Schepkin, who is in the process of recording all of Bach’s keyboard music. (The program also includes the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903, and two performances on two different pianos of the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904.) Schepkin’s approach is informed by historic-practice scholarship, but also takes full advantage of the expressive capabilities of the modern piano, making his interpretations of these works unusually compelling. Recommended to all classical collections.

-- CD Hotlist

Writing in his accompanying essay, Russian-American pianist Sergey Schepkin leaves you in no doubt why Bach is at the heart of his repertoire. And his performances of the six French Suites, two differing takes on the A minor Fantasia and Fugue and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue are of an exemplary precision and lucidity. Using the Bärenreiter edition of the Suites, his playing is at first relatively austere, allowing for rich embellishments on the repeats. Again, he argues sensibly that to place graceful, intimate if ‘sometimes humorous Minuets’ after fast-paced and exhilarating Gigues, as in some editions, savours of anti-climax.

Such telling scholarship is complemented by playing devoid of egocentricity, elaborate gesturing and agogic accentuation, in which everything is made seamless and natural, though with no loss of character. Bach is always allowed his own voice, a far cry from the justly celebrated Bach of Gould or Tureck, where touches of genius are qualified by eccentricity (Gould) and pedantry (Tureck).

Schepkin is gentle and heart-warming in the Second Suite’s Allemande, lively but unforced in the Courante. There is a special sense of joyousness in the Fifth Suite, where in the final Gigue his sparkle declares his enviable technique, though one never on display for its own sake. Try the Courante from the Sixth Suite for an example of Schepkin’s effortless-sounding command or the Gavotte for an irresistibly perky rhythmic spring.

Then, he is suitably audacious and improvisatory in the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, music beloved by virtuoso pianists not normally attuned to Bach. And if he cannot erase memories of the glories offered by Edwin Fischer and most of all Kempff (his live BBC Legends performance – 2/01), his performance is never less than arresting. Steinway & Sons has done Schepkin proud, crowning his special accomplishment with excellent sound.

-- Bryce Morrison, Gramophone

"Russian American pianist Sergey Schepkin tends to have a polarizing effect with his Bach recordings, which might be described as being like Glenn Gould without the sharp edge. In Schepkin's Bach, listeners will hear Bach, but they will also hear a lot of Schepkin; his readings have a consistent and distinctive surface that they'll be able to recognize after sampling just a small amount. He does not use a lot of pedal, but his recordings are intensely pianistic, with a clean, consistent articulation that does not let the music vary much from movement to movement and piece to piece. He tends to add a good deal of ornamentation, however, and for that reason this set of the six so-called (not by Bach) French Suites makes a good place to start with this unorthodox and, for many, compelling pianist: the case for ornamenting the repeats in these dances, which exist in multiple versions that seem to suggest that Bach himself was fooling with the ornamentation possibilities, is a strong one. With this recording Schepkin moves from the small Ongaku label to Steinway & Sons, and there is no denying the sheer pianistic beauty of Schepkin's playing in the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, even as the work's usual grandeur is pared way back. Another pianist to whom he might be compared is Vladimir Feltsman, and it would seem that a rather idiosyncratic Russian school of Bach playing -- athletic, hypnotic, counter to type -- has emerged."

-- James Manheim, All Music Guide

If you are allergic to Bach on the piano, don’t bother reading further. But if that idea is not anathema to you, this is a set of Bach’s French Suites worthy of standing with the best. Two recordings that set a high bar are Schiff’s (a DVD reviewed by Scott Noriega in Fanfare 34:6) and of course Gould’s (reviewed by Edward Strickland in 10:5). Sergey Schepkin occupies a place, stylistically, somewhere between the introspective poetry of Schiff and the quirky, rhythmically vital detaché style of Gould.

Schepkin’s previous Bach recordings have been reviewed in Fanfare by Bernard Jacobson, and to say that he was enthusiastic is to understate the case. One of his quotes: “The arrival of Sergey Schepkin on the recording scene seems to me to have—if you will pardon the crassly commercial metaphor—raised the stakes for every player who essays Bach.” I find myself in full agreement with Jacobson about the importance of this pianist.

Schepkin, born in St. Petersburg and a student of Russell Sherman’s at the New England Conservatory, does perform regularly and he also teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and the New England Conservatory, but he certainly has not achieved the kind of international reputation this playing merits. Even owning performances by Gould, Perahia, Gavrilov, and Martins, I suspect that the set I will be playing most frequently in the future will be Schepkin’s.

Schepkin brings a balance of interpretive and pianistic elements to these performances. His playing is extremely lyrical, but rhythms are firm and taut. He can play with extraordinary delicacy and poetry (the opening of No 6 for example), with wit and verve (many of the gigues), and with a wide range of colors. He makes no attempt to imitate the sound of a harpsichord, but rather revels in the possibilities of the piano, while never making his playing too large-scaled. At fast speeds (the Courante of No. 6, for instance) his fingerwork is astonishingly even. Every note gets precisely the weight and touch it should, no more, no less. Schepkin ornaments second statements of themes liberally, and discusses the issue intelligently in his notes. This is playing that is completely engaging from beginning to end.

Schepkin also provides some extremely perceptive and well-written program notes, some of the best I have encountered. Most interesting is his take on the Fantasia and Fugue in A Minor. He writes “The Fantasia can take a number of interpretive approaches: it can be performed as a solemn, philosophical, and melancholy work….It is also possible to give it a faster tempo and a more dynamic character….” So what does he do? He gives us two performances of the piece, and each one is completely convincing. The first take is 9:04, the second 8:06 (that is a significant difference in a short piece), and when you listen to either you are convinced that it is the way the piece should go. He also chose a different piano for each take, because its sound was more appropriate to that approach. What is most amazing is how deeply he seems to believe in both approaches.

There is wit, beauty, poetry, rhythmic firmness and sheer joy in Schepkin’s playing. The superbly engineered recording was made in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory, and the perspective is perfect. You feel that the piano is in the room with you, but at an appropriate distance. Enthusiastically recommended.

-- Fanfare

Good news. This release is the first in a projected series of all Bach’s keyboard music. Schepkin is a fine Bach player, so I hope this series reaches its conclusion. I have loved his playing since the earliest days of my work at ARG. He was then a bit quirkier, but more or less effective in his application of Baroquestyle performance approaches to the piano. This time out he seems to have mellowed a bit and much in the same way that I have: there’s much less detached, motive playing, so that when it does appear (as in the fugue from the Chromatic Fantasy and the gigues from the fifth and sixth French Suites) it’s a welcome expressive contrast. His tone is always warm and rich. His ornamentation follows (I gather) various manuscript sources and sounds fine.

Every now and then, particularly in the Allemandes from Suites 1–3, I wish he had slowed down more and offered more nuanced, ruminative interpretations. Even so, I’m satisfied: an abundance of singing, connected bass lines more than compensates. I’m looking forward to his WTC and hope it comes sooner rather than later.

-- American Record Guide Read less