Until Vladimir Ashkenazy recorded the Well-Tempered Clavier and Partitas for Decca, he was not thought of as a Bach pianist. In the Partitas, his playing was very aggressive and fell someway short of what one might have expected of a man who was once – prior to him taking up the baton – one of the world’s greatest pianists.
This delightfully eclectic programme features works – other than the ‘Italian’ Concerto – that aren’t perhaps as well-known as they should be. Regarding the recorded sound, there is reasonable body, excellent definition and the overall balance is nicely middle-distance, but the image lacks true resonance, presence and doesn’t capture Ashkenazy’s unique timbre.
The French Overture consists of an extended ‘Ouverture’ (a Prelude and Fugue), six dance movements and an ‘Echo’ (which displayed the dynamic versatility of a two manual keyboard). Ashkenazy adopts a leisurely tempo in the opening movement, with discrete ornamentation, and via use of the sustaining pedal and a rich tonal palette isn’t afraid to present the music in quasi-romantic terms. He also observes – both here and throughout the recital – repeats. For the fugue, Ashkenazy clearly presents the different strands of the argument, but the phrasing lacks elasticity and it all sounds rather driven. There is a similar feeling in the some of the dances, which can lack refinement and need greater rhythmic vitality. Ashkenazy does however beautifully banish the bar-lines in the ‘Sarabande’, and the fugal elements are well portrayed.
If one turns to that arch-maverick of the piano, Glenn Gould, then one hears a completely different conception of the work. His opening movement is leaner (although how much of this is down to the sound is open to question), the pedals are virtually ignored, there is more decoration, yet he effortlessly conveys a quiet sense of profound stillness; in the fugue his rhythmic pointing and contrapuntal delineation is a joy and Gould never seems rushed. Throughout there is a sense of spontaneous invention that makes Ashkenazy sound flat-footed.
In the Aria variata, a comparison with another Russian pianist – Emil Gilels (BBC Legends) – seemed appropriate. From Ashkenazy the Aria itself is with little decoration. His tempo for the following Largo is marginally too fast, and elsewhere more humour and less literalness is needed. Ashkenazy can be suitably light and also ensures that repeated Allegros are much faster than first-time around, and uses greater weight and power in the concluding variations. Gilels is very slow in the Aria, uses effortless rubato, his trilling is an object-lesson in the art of decoration, and like Gould, creates an atmosphere of rapt contemplation. He brings the music to even greater life.
Moving to the ‘Italian’ Concerto, here Solomon live in Berlin (Audite) has been chosen for comparison. In the first movement Ashkenazy isn’t too fast, the rhythms are sprung, and there is a reasonable degree of dynamic and tonal variation. He adopts a slow tempo for the beautiful Andante and the finale has plenty of impetus, every strand of the texture is clearly presented and his rhythmic pointing is refined. Solomon though is in a different class through liquid rubato, beautiful variation of touch, rhythmic highlighting and total command. His playing of the slow movement belongs to the gods.
Ashkenazy’s makeweight is Bach's charming arrangement of a Marcello Oboe Concerto. Here Ashkenazy sounds a little stiff and literal in the first movement, and yet he makes the slow movement into a Chopin Nocturne and thereby produces the most heartfelt playing of this recital. There is nothing drastically wrong with these performances; it’s just that others have played each work better. I don’t know if the any of these pieces were in his repertoire in early career, but it would be fascinating to hear him doing any of them live in his pianistic heyday.