Pianist generates heat with Beethoven sonatas

Music lovers prefer their excitement to emanate from the concert stage, not the weather forecast. But the latest installment in Craig Sheppard's seven-concert traversal of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas was surrounded by weather-related suspense: Originally scheduled for Tuesday, the recital was put off until Wednesday, and ticketholders still had to battle some frozen roadways to get there.

The event was worth the effort. The audience was not as large as in the previous recital, but it was attentive, and everybody remembered to turn off those annoying cellphones (particularly vital here, because this series is being recorded on both audio and video).

Most important of all, the repertoire offered in this program included some of the choicest of all the Beethoven sonatas: the sparkling "Waldstein" Sonata and the impassioned "Appassionata" Sonata, both considered among the pinnacles of the vast piano repertoire. In addition, there were three shorter sonatas: the F Major/Op. 78 and G Major/Op. 79, as well as the F Major/Op. 54.

Sheppard did not disappoint. From the opening notes of the exuberant, irrepressible Op. 78 sonata to the decorous Andante Favori encore, it was clear that this charismatic, riveting artist was on form. The more lighthearted sonatas were rendered in a way that made clear the origins of the verb "to play." The more serious ones were full of supercharged intensity, the sort of music that makes listeners lean forward in their seats and forget all about coughing or twitching.

Even the less-famous sonatas on the Wednesday program had their charms (the second movement of the Op. 78 recalls the motif of "Rule, Britannia," and it's full of good humor). Sheppard left no interpretive stone unturned in these little gems.

The "Waldstein" Sonata was so exciting that many in the audience threw convention to the winds and burst into applause after the first movement. Sheppard certainly didn't settle for the standard interpretation, playing some passages unusually softly and giving others an almost Impressionist overlay of pedal. The finale accelerated nearly to the point of no return, but Sheppard kept impressive control of the blistering passagework.

The "Appassionata" was deeply serious, played with an almost demonic intensity that never quite let up. Even the middle movement, the Andante con moto, glittered with a diamond-like scintillation. Sheppard's digital celerity pushed the finale about as hard as it can be pushed, sending the audience to its feet for a roaring, whistling ovation.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com