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Bach: The Six Partitas / Sergey Schepkin

Release Date: 07/08/2016
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30062 Spars Code: DDD
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach Performer:  Sergey Schepkin Number of Discs: 2

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partitas, BWV 825-830, were published between 1726 and 1730, and were the first of his works to be published under his direction. They were among the last of his keyboard suites to be composed, and are by far the most technically demanding.

A Russian born American pianist, Sergey Schepkin is based in Massachusetts, and is a leading authority on the interpretation of Bach’s work. This release is Schepkin’s second recording with Steinway & Sons.

“Mr. Schepkin’s technical skills and innate virtuosity are integral in bringing the Baroque embellishments and ornamentation to his Steinway piano and to the ears of a modern listener.” -- AXS

“Russian-American pianist Sergey
Read more Schepkin leaves you in no doubt why Bach is at the heart of his repertoire.”
-- Gramophone

Album Credits:

Recorded at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston: Partita No. 1, BWV 825 on September 14, 2015; Partitas Nos. 2–6, BWV 826–830 on September 14 and 29, 2014.
Producer: Sergey Schepkin
Recording and Editing: Patrick Keating
Executive Producer: Jon Feidner
Piano: Steinway Model D, Hamburg
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Design: Anilda Carrasquillo
Production Assistant: Robert Hillinck
Administrative Assistant: Joanne Hong
Photo of Sergey Schepkin: Michael Lutch


This beautiful playing belongs firmly in the Russia style of Bach playing, it seems to me. I am recalling, in particular, the Bach of Vladimir Feltsman, Sviatoslav Richter, and even the rather obscure recordings of Grigory Ginsburg, all of whom perform the music in an unabashedly pianistic way, with great emphasis on nuanced dynamic phrasing and rich, colorful tonality. St. Petersburg Conservatory trained Sergey Schepkin, now a naturalized American citizen and faculty member at both Carnegie Mellon and the New England Conservatory prep school, exemplifies the approach. This is a far cry from so-called authentic Bach playing, but it is immensely satisfying and reflects the genius of Bach with deep reverence. That is authentic enough for me. The one caveat I have with this aesthetic is that it tends to favor broad tempos and a somewhat reduced dynamic range. This can reduce the theatricality and excitement of certain passages. The opening Toccata of the Partita No. 6 is usually delivered with a brighter tone and a more vehement dynamic sense than we get here. Similarly, the Prelude to the Partita No. 1 sounds more lively in my imagination than the gentle, if poetic, take on this music that we get from Schepkin. But I know why this is the case; the superbly joyous manner of Dinu Lipatti in this music is seared into my brain as the way this music should sound. But no one has a lock on the precise technical parameters of the scores, since Bach did not leave us with tempo or dynamic indications. In that spirit, I highly endorse Schepkin’s glowing rendition of this timeless music.

-- Peter Burwasser, Fanfare

While listening to Sergey Schepkin’s second recording of Bach’s Six Partitas, I found myself skipping around, comparing the same dance movements in different Partitas—say, two or three Sarabandes or Correntes—to hear the open-hearted choices Schepkin makes in response to their different moods and energies. Exploring music in this never-ending way with such an illuminating artist was in some ways more revealing than listening to them straight through, one Partita at a time. Boston-based Schepkin takes particular delight in the Allemandes and redefines Bach’s ‘Tempo di minuetto’ in No 5, tripping the light fantastic on his multi-coloured descendant of the single-manual instrument for which Bach wrote the Partitas. Unexpectedly, the Gigues are, with the exception of No 1, sobering affairs. Schepkin also responds strongly to the different tonal centres, from the life-enhancing D major of No 4, especiall y its splendid opening Overture, to the dour A minor in No 3. Despite his formidable Steinway, Schepkin has a harpsichordist’s feel for the magic of resonance born of slight, brief repetition; according to the booklet-notes, his performances incorporate Bach’s suggestions on ornamentation given to his ‘immediate circle of students’. The best illustration of this is the Second Partita, which receives a florid, hedonistically embellished reading based ‘to a substantial degree’, we are told, on a Bärenreiter Urtext. The music was recorded with sumptuous delicacy of colour in Jordan Hall at Boston’s New England Conservatory, in two sessions a year apart but showing no difference in their blend of sound and artistry.

-- Laurence Vittes, Gramophone

"Mr. Schepkin presents The Six Partitas with clarity and with a penetrating and bristling piano sound that is reproduced with a discerning and intensely active interpretation...the beauty, mastery of compositional technique and Schepkin’s virtuoso treatment of the piano keyboard, grace, elegance and depth are impeccably recorded here for your listening pleasure."

-- AXS [7/12/16]

Sergey Schepkin first recorded Bach’s Partitas in the late 1990s for the Ongaku label. The performances stood out for contrapuntal clarity, technical bravura, and arguably over-the-top embellishments at times. Nearly 20 years later, Schepkin has rerecorded the Partitas, and his conceptions have evolved in many respects. He now observes all of the repeats, and has tempered his erstwhile crisp articulation with more legato phrasing, plus more noticeable yet nonetheless discreet use of the pedal. This especially applies to the Sarabandes, where formerly clipped bass lines are rounder and more sustained. In turn, the melodies sing out to more communicative effect; compare the new Partita No. 4’s Sarabande to its earlier version and you’ll hear the difference. Schepkin’s rhythm remains steady, yet he loosens up when so inclined, especially in the less cut-and-dried slower, lyrical movements. You notice this in the Partita No. 1’s Praeludium, where the right-hand line pushes ahead and pulls back. The same Partita’s Menuets are quicker and brasher this time around. The final Gigue is considerably faster as well, but less controlled than before. Schepkin generally retains his original, well-chosen tempos throughout No. 2, but tones down the embellishments. No. 3 markedly improves over its predecessor. For example, Schepkin now gives more weight and gravitas to the Burlesca’s rolled chords, while the Gigue, by contrast, is altogether leaner and lighter. If Schepkin’s introduction to No. 4’s Ouverture still seems unconvincingly headlong and glib for such ceremonial music (Kapell, Gould, Hewitt, and Perahia are closer to its characterful mark), his firmly grounded Courante and Gigue compensate. Schepkin’s way with No. 5 has matured with age, gaining palpable shape and direction. However, some listeners may take issue with his insistent underlining of the Tempo di Minuetto’s cross-rhythms, in contrast to the earlier traversal’s clarity and restraint. No. 6’s lengthy opening Toccata is still on the fast side, albeit with more breathing room, but the Allemande has gained considerable expressive profile over time and reveals Schepkin at his best. The pianist’s bouncy Corrente of old returns in a more refined and subtly articulated state, while the Gigue’s additional tonal heft reinforces the movement’s sense of finality. To be sure, the Ongaku Partita cycle still offers much to enjoy, and also includes the Four Duets and the Overture in the French Style. At the same time, Schepkin’s interpretations have clearly evolved and matured, and deserve a place very close to the top of the list.

-- Jed Distler,

"The Russians were never very keen on Bach," said Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts (himself a fine Bach violinist). "Their (well, our!) Bach has a tendency to sound a bit on the never-ending side -- a lot of melodic lines, shapeless." Russian-American pianist Sergey Schepkin seems ready to erase this perception with a beautifully recorded series of Bach favorites on the U.S. Steinway & Sons label. His technical skills, always impressive, are in full display on this double album of partitas, with a variety of articulation in the fast movements that makes them seem more "pianistic" than they really are: Schepkin has drawn comparisons to Glenn Gould, and he's done it without using a lot of pedal. The slow movements, with a good deal of ornamentation and rhythmic freedom, are perhaps the most characteristic; sample one of the sarabandes, perhaps that of the Partita No. 1 in B flat major, BWV 825, for a taste. Schepkin in the past has seemed remote, but here he is personal, changeable, and it is András Schiff, perhaps his major competition in this field, who seems to have a harder edge. In general, Schepkin steers far from the dance origin of these pieces. Schepkin's readings may make different impressions on different listeners, but these are major statements in the catalog of Bach recordings on the piano.

-- AllMusic Guide

Even if your only exposure to Bach’s great keyboard works played on the modern piano is one or another of Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations (there are three, you know), you really should consider buying this new set of the Partitas on Steinway & Sons’ CD label. Don’t be scared off by the technical term “Partita.” All that means is that these are multi-movement works made up of parts; specifically, sections that usually were named after dances. Bach’s contemporaries would have understood the dance names such as “Sarabande” as giving an idea as to the tempo and feeling of each segment. The liner notes make the important point that this is not music to dance to; it is music for its own sake, about the idea or the ideal of dancing.

Sergey Schepkin’s playing is technically as good as anyone else’s out there, and his interpretations are a moveable feast—by turns fleet, witty, and playful; or, delicate, subtle, and pensive (or even serious or solemn). This music can mind its own business in the background at Campari time, but it is also worth your undivided attention late at night.

-- John Marks, The Tannhäuser Gate

Having become a fixture in both the local and international classical music scenes, Boston-based Sergey Schepkin presents Bach’s keyboard partitas as the next installation of his recording the complete keyboard repertoire of the German composer. Performed on a modern piano, Schepkin calls upon his historical performance practices, staying true to the spirit of the works while furnishing a warm and brilliant sonority.


There will never be a definitive answer to the question of whether Bach “ought to” be played on an instrument that did not exist in his time, the modern concert grand. Some people will always prefer that his keyboard music be heard as he intended it to be—others will insist that the color, nuance and overall impressiveness of Bach’s scores come through better on a modern piano than on a harpsichord or clavichord, and that Bach would undoubtedly have written for the modern instrument if he had had one available. That latter comment is likely true, but it is also true that he would not have written music such as his six harpsichord partitas for a piano: they are designed for the harpsichord, their contrapuntal lines and overall sound intended to be brought forth by a plucked-strings instrument without deep bass resonance, sustaining pedal, and sheer immensity of size. Still, pianists cannot help themselves: the partitas are simply so wonderful that performers who do not know the harpsichord can certainly be forgiven for wanting to play this marvelous music on the instrument that they do know. Sergey Schepkin’s handling of the partitas is quite personal (in much the same sense that Wanda Landowska’s was on harpsichord), and Schepkin provides a view of the music that listeners are unlikely to have heard before. It is surely not the way Bach himself imagined this music, but for a contemporary audience, Schepkin offers a set of preludes that is highly attractive. Schepkin is clearly aware of historical performance practices, but considers them a jumping-off point rather than a mandatory way of handling Bach’s music. Ornamentation, for example, was integral to Bach’s music, and Schepkin knows this. But his notion of ornamentation is very much that of a modern pianist: he rolls chords, changes dynamics in a way that is not possible on the harpsichord, goes well beyond the sonic changes possible through altered registration, and pulls emotion and drama from the music in ways that sound thoroughly modern and very little like Bach. It is not that the notes are wrong: Schepkin seems to have no difficulty at all with these very difficult works, even when the piano is poorly suited to the separation of the partitas’ musical lines and has a tendency to blend, if not blur, them. Schepkin’s playing has a free, almost improvisatory quality about it, combining warmth and wit, fantasy and imagination, in a way that pulls the listener deeply into Schepkin’s sound world and provides a great deal of pleasure. However, this is not Bach’s sound world, and therein lies the issue with these jaunty, dancelike and frequently very clever interpretations. Listeners unfamiliar with Bach will find Schepkin's performances exhilarating and thoroughly involving throughout. Those who know the partitas as Bach wrote them, for the harpsichord, may well still find themselves captivated by the sheer joie de vivre that Schepkin offers in this Steinway & Sons two-CD release. It really is a wonderful recording and it really is thoroughly inauthentic. Each listener will need to decide how to balance those two characteristics.


When I republished a number of my reviews in book form with Rowman & Littlefield (Jan/Feb 2016) I knew I wanted to include the ones of Sergey Schepkin’s wonderful Bach performances for Ongaku. I pronounced his recording of Partitas 1-4 the best on piano (July/Aug 1997); what I liked, in particular, was his artful blending of the best qualities of the harpsichord with an essentially pianistic approach.

His Steinway recording, I should hasten to add, is not a reissue but a new installment in a series that will collect all Bach’s non-organ keyboard music; like the previous release of the French Suites (Mar/Apr 2015), it is thoroughly engaging and often unmatched by any other pianist. He uses the pedal generously and employs varied articulation—when non-legato playing appears, it seems logical and well considered, not like the default setting that most pianists resort to when they play Bach. The interpretations are often fresh and surprising without seeming mannered or perverse. Some examples include the rather sprightly and childlike Praeludium from Partita 1, the aggressive but never monochromatic Fantasia from Partita 3, the emotionally probing Allemande from the same partita (including thoroughly convincing embellishments in the repeats), and the compelling gigue from Partita 6 with its marvelous, understated violence.

In works as rich as the partitas, it will be hard to find one performer that will please listeners on all counts. (I wish Schepkin had taken a gentler approach in the gigue from Partita 5, for instance.) Even so, among a number of recordings of the partitas I have heard thru the years, no pianist I know comes as close to perfection. He stands head and shoulders above more famous pianists like Gould (July/Aug 1994—one of his least satisfying recordings), the prissy Andras Schiff (Nov/Dec 2009), the dutiful Angela Hewitt (no ARG review). The only pianists who approach Schepkin are the very fine Igor Levit, whom Schepkin surpasses in depth and maturity, and Murray Perahia—and I even prefer Schepkin to my beloved Murray.

-- American Record Guide Read less