'Beethoven: A Journey' is gaining momentum

It just gets better.

Wednesday marked the third step in Craig Sheppard's traversal of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas over the course of seven recitals, spread out over two concert seasons.

If Part III is any indication, by the time Sheppard gets to the seventh recital, there won't be any room in Meany Theater. And the playing will be unimaginably good, because Sheppard has only gotten better and better over the course of the three recitals thus far.

The word's getting out about "Beethoven: A Journey," and the audiences have gotten steadily bigger. Last night, Meany managers closed the balcony, the usual step taken when a small attendance is expected (so the main floor will appear full). Instead, the crowds rapidly filled up the main floor, and when the balcony was opened they flooded upward.

Seattle is fortunate indeed to have a major pianist embarking on a traversal of these great works. It's an opportunity that doesn't come along very often; this is a lot of music to learn, think through, and polish. It is music that challenges the fingers and the intellect, music that has been interpreted by most of the world's great pianists since Beethoven's day (1770-1827).

On Wednesday evening, Sheppard opened with the two sonatas of Opus 14 (E Major, G Major), and the Sonata in B-Flat Major, Op. 22 — one of the program's high points. Following intermission, he played the Sonata in A-Flat Major ("Funeral March," Op. 26), the Sonata in E-Flat Major (Op. 27, No. 1), and finally the pìece de résistance, the Sonata in C-Sharp Minor (Op. 27, No. 2), the famous "Moonlight" Sonata.

What strikes you first about Sheppard's Beethoven is his absolute mastery of the material and the brilliance of his technique. But equally apparent is the tremendous variety of touch, tone, dynamics and characterization of every episode of every movement.

Songlike melodies are interrupted by rambunctious bass figures; exquisitely shaped passages flow like running water. Sturm-und-drang sections give way to lines that sound buoyantly naïve. Always beneath the surface is a tigerlike power that can pounce on the keys like a predator, as Sheppard did in the final movement of the "Moonlight."

One discordant note: Despite repeated announcements that the recitals were being recorded, two different cellphone rings interrupted the mysterious serenity of the first movement of the "Moonlight."

That's unconscionable. Turn off those blankety-blank phones, folks, in every concert hall.

Concert review

Craig Sheppard, pianist, in third installment of "Beethoven: A Journey"; Meany Theater, Wednesday night. Series continues Oct. 14 (206-543-4880).