Ashkenazy plays Rachmaninov – Piano Sonata No.1 & Chopin Variations [Decca]

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Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op.22
Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op.28

Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)

Recorded 10 & 11 October 2010 and 21 & 22 June 2011 in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: December 2011
CD No: DECCA 478 2938
Duration: 60 minutes



Vladimir Ashkenazy has been recording the music of Rachmaninov for over forty years as pianist and conductor, but here he records two of the composer’s bigger works for piano for the first time. (The playing-time of the disc is two minutes less than stated.)

The First Piano Sonata may be a tougher nut to crack interpretatively than the Second, but as Ashkenazy shows the rewards can be great. Rachmaninov based the piece on Faustian drama, and the darkly coloured staccato theme emerges solemnly under Ashkenazy’s hands. The tempo is relatively fast, but nowhere near as quick as Alexis Weissenberg’s recording for Deutsche Grammophon, currently out of circulation. Ashkenazy’s is a reading full of dramatic intent, and where he really excels is in the chant-like second theme, emerging from the lower register despite the incredible amount of musical activity around it. While much of this music is lean and muscular, Ashkenazy gets beneath the surface of the undulations in the second movement, winding down to a moment of beautiful, airy repose before the finale is unleashed. Here the sense of forward drive is irresistible, broken only briefly for further contemplation on the ‘Dies Irae’ theme. A real sense of triumph pervades the final bars, the ending emphatic.

The Chopin Variations is equally feared and respected among performers, a set of 22 commentaries based on the C minor Prelude from Chopin’s Opus 28 that can also be viewed as comprising a four-movement sonata. Ashkenazy performs them at quite a lick, but his case is a compelling and binding one. The rubato with which he ends the thematic exposition is ideal, setting the scene for the drama unfolding variations. Throughout there is a strong sense of command, the virtuosity imperious in Variation IX, the right-hand passagework of the capricious XX rapidly and brilliantly brought off. There is also an element of mystery when Rachmaninov veers farthest from the C minor home key, as he does in XIII, and for the homecoming the sense of assurance is great, Ashkenazy crowning his interpretation with the triumphant XXII and opting for the quietly-ending final bars.

With this recording, beautifully recorded in an ideal acoustic, Ashkenazy has now committed all of Rachmaninov’s piano works to disc, most of them for Decca. Nevertheless, hearing these performances whets the appetite for more from this most fervent of the composer’s advocates.

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