Boston Musical Intelligencer, David Moran
The Sunday afternoon late-Beethoven piano recital at Emmanuel Church for Emmanuel Music featured Sergey Schepkin playing the last Bagatelles and opus 110 and Katherine Chi the Diabelli Variations. More to ponder. Bagatelles are akin to 'trick pieces', artistic director Ryan Turner informed us in brief remarks beforehand. The comprehensive program notes began with his opus 126 contribution; Russell Sherman commented at his most helpfully poetic on opus 110, and an excerpt from the amazing Diabelli essays of William Kinderman completed the content. Schepkin, of slightly severe mien, found sturdy ways to punch forth the weird Bagatelles, although here too some smiling might have been favorable, as not a few passages conjured Shostakovich or Prokofiev.
In all of this keyboard work from 1819 through 1824 we are led to stand before Beethoven’s deep fondness for fugue, chorale, near-medieval styles including seemingly primitive canon, while also thinking ahead, to the divine, to future worlds of an almost ethereal metaphysic. Beethoven looks back to Bach, different Bachs in fact, and forward to Brahms (Diabelli variation 20 to some extent); he pays humorous, also serious tributes to Mozart, dead almost three decades when Diabelli’s postwar fundraising project was launched. Beethoven honors his favorite composer Handel more than once. And sometimes he peers ahead to a Zen future, of Haydnlike simplicity. Turner noted that the Bach fugue study was partly in preparation for the Missa Solemnis.
Regardless, by the end of many works—this is truer in the sonatas than the variations—there almost always has been detailed struggle during the transition from feeling really bad to relief, of … what? Some sort of better is all we can tell. Sometimes the music embodies only the approach of relief, other times the relief itself. This struggle gets sonically dramatized in the most probing ways, thereby physically persuading us of the very process, as Charles Rosen put it. With Beethoven many would not quite call it healing, and in the Diabelli it is triumph, but with what sounds like to me a satisfying and amusing slight letdown.
Schepkin’s Opus 110 began somewhat stiff and square. I thought it might be partly the Emmanuel Steinway, but Debussy recordings by this pianist exhibit the same slightly tight and unlilting characteristic. (There’s a brutal Mussorgsky recording as well.) Phrase openings sounded pushed, marchlike; Schepkin has rhythmic strength but sometimes of a stereotypically Germanic sort. This inelegance suits other musics, true. One peculiar penchant is that even in recordings Schepkin regularly rushes cadences in order to prepare for next difficult passage; it’s puzzling no one seems to have mentioned this to him. A reverse emergency rubato, if you will.
He momentarily flubbed his way in the Scherzo.
But then, but then: the force came to him, the force was with him, he relaxed, and the last movement’s fugues were just tremendous. Such screw-tightening, such triumphs.
Katherine Chi similarly did not start out as the last word in elegance or relaxed intensity. (She has a Hammerklavier recording that’s a bit tight and squared-off.) The Diabelli opening waltz and variations felt tense, unplayful; some trills made messes. But then she too, after rocking through variation 16, began to ease, and the entire second half, particularly the last third, showed off increasing imagination and sensitivity to a high degree. Chi came into her own, listening into her playing. This may sound like faint praise, but it is not, believe me, as here is where Beethoven really gets going in his time travels, and Chi fully lit his varied facets: manic, formal, pedantic, show tune, haunting, chromatic. The last slow variations sang gravely, Goldberg-like, and the Fugue gripped its dissonances and transitioned in riveting fashion to that closing music-box Menuetto, its final chord for once not banged out, indeed treated with an effective, defocusing half-pedaling release. I’ve never heard it done that way.
Now I want to hear all three of these pianists in more late Beethoven.