The Well-Tempered Clavier/Ashkenazy

0 of 5 stars

Das wohltemperierte Klavier [The Well-Tempered Clavier], Book I (BWV846-869) & Book II (BWV870-893)

Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)

Recorded 24-26 March & 18-19 Dec 2004, and 19-20 March 2005, in Potton Hall, Suffolk

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: May 2006
CD No: DECCA 475 6832
(3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 59 minutes

Neither performer nor work needs introduction – indeed the literature accompanying this set dispenses with any biography of Vladimir Ashkenazy. His is an unashamedly pianistic reading, notable for its sweep and élan. Ashkenazy does not hesitate to let his personality show; at times, one is reminded of Richter’s character and forward motion. It is old-fashioned in the same way: a great musician with something valid to say about great music, irrespective of whether he is known for interpreting the music of that composer or period. Ashkenazy gives us a performance whose spirit is to be admired, although it is uneven; indeed, it makes no pretence at being synoptic. Yet the set still makes very good extended listening.

A number of the pieces exhibit great strength: the very masculine, Beethovenian Book II Prelude 1, the storming II Fugue 10, the exuberant II Fugue 11; others are intimate and spiritual: Book I Prelude 7 or Fugue 22, the serenity of Book I Prelude and Fugue 8, the innocence of I Prelude 9, or the magisterial legato opening to I Prelude 24. This is a great pianist offering a summation of his own musicality through one of the great monuments of the keyboard. Some pieces benefit enormously from Ashkenazy’s imagination – Book II Prelude 16, repetitive in composition, is transformed into a pre-echo of the Schumann song “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strom”, which clearly quotes it.

But although Ashkenazy is quick-fingered in a number of pieces, this is not an overly virtuoso set. There are some examples that are cautious, laboured and, at times, untidy: Prelude 5 of Book II exhibits all the virtues of energy and bite in the celebratory D major key but lacks the concurrent neatness of fingerwork. There are other moments where the tone seems curiously and unnecessarily hard-edged, or where the music simply seems to be running way. Occasionally, the pieces seem over-interpreted: the very first Prelude, is so familiar as to be almost impossible to interpret, and is here slow and made to sound portentous – a not altogether convincing opening for the set. Purists will find plenty to carp at. Ashkenazy uses staccato throughout as an expressive device, which some may find irritating; the similarly expressive ritardandos are symptomatic of Ashkenazy’s Romantic approach, but may also offend.

Despite a programme essay from Peter Williams, a leading Bach authority, there is nothing from him or Ashkenazy on the texts employed (Book II is notoriously complex in this respect), nor any discussion of why a number of Book II repeats are omitted (yes, this enables both Books, as with Edwin Fischer’s, to fit on three very long discs, compared, for example, with Barenboim’s five, but it’s hard to see what advantage this confers.

The recorded sound is clear and appropriately forward. Ashkenazy recorded both Books in seven days spread over a year, long enough, but not over-generous for so much material. Although the notes point out there was no concept of a public performance of The Well-Tempered Clavier in Bach’s day, this relative compression of recording time does help give the set a strong sense of continuity and individuality. Ultimately, Ashkenazy’s traversal is unlikely to be one’s first choice in a crowded field, but it is certainly compelling and emotional listening.

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