Bach’s Partitas/Ashkenazy

0 of 5 stars

Partitas, BWV825–830 [No.1 in B flat; No.2 in C minor; No.3 in A minor; No.4 in D; No.5 in G; No.6 in E minor]

Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)

Recorded in February, August & December 2009 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: August 2010
CD No: DECCA 478 2163 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 12 minutes



Prior to becoming a conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy was one of the world’s greatest pianists. His recordings were best-sellers and I have long cherished his disc of Liszt pieces, Chopin Etudes and the magnificent Scriabin cycle. Here he turns his attention to Bach’s great set of Partitas and produces some very forceful playing, that often comes perilously close to sounding completely insensitive.

The First Partita starts reasonably well with a quite relaxed account of the ‘Praeludium’, but in the rushed ‘Allemande’ any sense of dance is lost. In the ‘Courante’ there is no rise and fall to the phrasing, no gradation of dynamics, no rhythmic variation, no rubato and the bass is very lumpy. The tempo for the ‘Sarabande’ is very slow, yet there is little sense of quiet, timeless contemplation. In the two ‘Minuets’ the line is shallow and the ‘Giga’ unrelenting.

The Second Partita is a highly contrapuntal work, but from Ashkenazy the left-hand at the opening of the ‘Sinfonia’ is crude, the fugal section devoid of give-and-take, and the different strands and layers are not presented clearly: the music does not breathe. Essentially what is missing is humanity and spirituality, which all great Bach-playing must have. Turn to Murray Perahia or Richard Goode and these qualities shine through, there is a sense of stillness behind every bar; Ashkenazy merely sounds agitated. In his account of the ‘Sarabande’ the tempo is relaxed but the music just plods forward, without feeling.

In the ‘Sarabande’ of the Fourth there is give-and-take, but the right-hand lacks expressiveness and the last three movements are relentless, with the final ‘Giga’ being little more than a garbled, loud mess. Indeed, Ashkenazy’s technique is being pushed to, and beyond, its limits. (Here Perahia is commanding, delineates the parts through far crisper finger-work and conveys that sense of unstoppable, logical momentum.). In a way Ashkenazy resembles Walter Gieseking, who was always fast and direct in Bach, but the latter would introduce an element of fantasy, and clearly differentiate the contrapuntal lines.

Some of this impression may be down to the sound. For some reason there were two teams of producers and engineers used and three sets of two-day recording sessions, spanning an entire year. The sound is too ‘forward’. Nor is there any sense of the acoustic of the recording venue, or any space around the piano, and the dynamic range is limited, perhaps Ashkenazy’s fault. The sound on a 1965 mono Concert Classics LP of Jörg Demus playing three of the Partitas is vastly superior.

These discs are offered as two-for-the-price-of-one, so they are really medium-priced, whereas Perahia and Goode retail at full price, but in artistic terms, they are well worth the extra.

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