Sheppard throws off sparks in first Beethoven sonatas

No wonder that a sizeable crowd assembled at Meany Theater on Tuesday night: It isn't often that you hear a major pianist begin his traversal of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas (a process that will take seven evenings, this season and next). And it doesn't hurt that ticket prices were about one-third of the standard President's Piano Series price, making the evening a terrific bargain as well.

It was a high-intensity evening, as Craig Sheppard took on the first four sonatas with a crackling energy that quickly transmitted itself to the audience. At times, it sounded as if Sheppard's piano should bear a "Danger: High Voltage" sign; the playing was downright explosive. This was not one of those quiet, refined evenings of culture where the gentleman to your right is peaceably nodding off halfway into the Adagio movement. This was a recital that was hewn out of rock and fire and the unadulterated power of Beethoven.

What a pleasure, too, to hear these early sonatas, ones that don't make it to nearly enough piano-recital programs. From the sharply pointed, stately progress of the first arpeggio up the keyboard in the F Minor (Op. 2, No. 1), it was clear that Sheppard would give these sonatas their full due. There was plenty of thunder and drama in these performances, but also a welcome clarity and a wealth of detail in the articulations, the accents and the dynamic contrasts. The playing had a wide emotional range, from pathos to playfulness (notably in the C Major sonata, which got one of the evening's finest performances).

Sheppard thought through every detail of the sonatas' individual architecture, building the music inexorably forward, and then heightening the drama with a well-placed pause when a new direction was indicated. Even in the most dulcet slow movements, the sense of the gathering storm was never far off.

The pianist came out to play the last sonata, the tricky E-Flat Major (Op. 7), with a cufflink that had apparently come loose and needed replacement. No wonder it was loose, with the tremendous kinetic energy of this recital. At that point, Sheppard was lucky his sleeves hadn't fallen off, never mind the cufflinks.

This was a recital that would have done credit to Carnegie Hall, right in our own backyard. The quality wasn't lost on the audience, which gave Sheppard a resounding standing ovation.

Concert review

Craig Sheppard, pianist, in "Beethoven: A Journey, Part I." Meany Theater, Tuesday night. (Series continues March 17 and May 21 at Meany; 206-543-4880.)