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Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
The First Recordings
rec. 1955-59
PROFIL EDITION PH19030 [4 CDs: 247:42]

Vladimir Ashkenazy (b. 1937) has long been one of the most highly respected and successful pianists of his generation, regularly touring across the globe to perform at the most prestigious venues and making countless recordings, generally garnering praise in both avenues of his activity. In the latter part of his career he has focused more on conducting, which he first took up in the 1970s as a side-line pursuit, but then turned to more seriously in the 1980s. From 2006 he stopped appearing in public as a pianist, officially announcing his withdrawal the following year because of “physical problems” with his hands, reportedly from a form of arthritis called arthrosis. His keyboard repertoire is vast, taking in works from JS Bach and Mozart to Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The performances on these four CDs come from very early in Ashkenazy’s career. In fact all predate his first prize victory (with co-winner John Ogdon) at the 1962 Tchaikovsky International Competition. But of course, he had two earlier major competition successes, finishing second at the 1955 Chopin Competition in Warsaw and first at the 1956 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. As can be seen from the dates given below, many of the performances occurred during and after these early victories. So, Ashkenazy was already a recognized talent at the time. He also displayed much of the same interpretive style of his mature years, and of course the same all-encompassing technique.

As those familiar with his style are aware, Ashkenazy has rarely displayed the tendency to linger over phrases or to slacken his pacing in a ponderous search for some hidden meaning. He has tended quite consistently to adopt tempos on the brisk side of their range, a characteristic of his conducting as well. Here, in the early part of his career, that tendency seems even more evident, at least in certain pieces such as the Prokofiev Sonata No. 7. This performance, from 1959, at 15:42, is nearly two minutes faster than his fairly lean 1968 Decca account, which clocks in at 17:40. I noticed numerous other such examples in the repertoire on these discs, but I also found more than a few instances where later performances were faster. Still and though it appears his earlier accounts are more likely to be faster than his later ones, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are less effective.

There is another, perhaps more significant issue here—the variable and sometimes inferior sound reproduction. On disc 1, tracks 1–11 are taken from live performances at the 1955 Chopin Competition and, not surprisingly, feature muddy, shrill sound, while the last track containing the Barcarolle, a 1961 studio effort from Moscow, is somewhat better, but still below standards of the time. The other three discs have much improved sonics, though the last CD features a somewhat tubby, boomy sounding bass and highs that exhibit a bit of shrillness.

The first two discs contain all Chopin works, with a mixture on the first and the Opp. 10 and 25 Études on the second. In the latter works Ashkenazy’s tempos are only marginally faster than those in his later accounts on Decca, and they brim with passion and spirit and, in fact, can be considered among the finest recorded versions. Ashkenazy nearly always effectively conveys the music’s fiery passion, its sorrows and ecstasies, its lyrical beauty and mood swings, and its brilliance and virtuosity. As for the competition, Ashkenazy’s Decca set is also excellent and the far lesser known Zlata Chochieva on Piano Classics has a very compelling version as well. Comparisons aside, if Ashkenazy’s earlier account is your only version of the 24 Études, you will be well served even if the sound is not up to today’s standards.

In the Chopin works on the first disc Ashkenazy generally plays quite skilfully. The Second Ballade and C-sharp Minor Prelude come off reasonably well, as do most of the other items. That said, I find the E Major Scherzo and A-flat Major Polonaise rushed and not competitive with the better versions, even if they are thrilling in their own way. The various pieces on this disc then are mostly well played, though not quite at the inspired level of Ashkenazy’s Études.

Disc 3 features a few more Chopin works, the most important of which is the Third Sonata. Here Ashkenazy’s interpretation is quite convincing. I have just one minor complaint: His tempo is just a bit too fast in the first movement main theme, resulting in some detail not emerging clearly enough. The lyrical alternate theme sings beautifully and the rest of the movement comes across splendidly. The other three movements are well played and interpreted and while I would call this one of the better accounts of the Third, I would certainly prefer Cliburn and Rubinstein, both on RCA. Ashkenazy’s other Chopin works on this disc are also good performances. The Mazurkas and two Waltzes are fine accounts, especially the famous “Minute Waltz”, but again I wouldn’t call them outstanding. His own later recordings of this music on Decca would be preferable and I also found the recent Eugene Mursky performances of the complete Mazurkas on Profil consistently excellent. Of course, in Chopin, there are so many other fine artists that one could go on all day making comparisons. Readers will have their favourites in this varied repertoire, but let me just say that Ashkenazy, who eventually became dismissive of many of his early recordings, was better than he thought he was, especially in his Chopin performances, most notably in the Études.
The third disc opens with scorching accounts of Liszt’s popular Mephisto Waltz No. 1 and Feux Follets, from the Transcendental Études. Both performances are fiery, dynamic and fully convincing, the latter quite a virtuosic effort with breathless pacing that may, however, miss some of the menacing playful character of the music. To Lisztians who go for dazzle, this performance is priceless. Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations closes the third disc. Ashkenazy begins with a slow statement of the theme, but thereafter fast variations generally go very fast and slow ones at an appropriate tempo. In the end, the overall performance is very brisk, but still quite convincing, powerfully dynamic and spirited. The recent account on Naxos from Boris Giltburg coupled with the Rachmaninov Third Concerto became my favourite version of the Corelli Variations, but Ashkenazy’s is at least as compelling, maybe better. Moreover, the sound is quite good here and generally fine throughout most of this disc.

The Prokofiev Seventh on Disc 4 is, as mentioned above, played very briskly—too briskly in fact. Each of the three movements strikes the ear as hurried, rushed. I have probably twenty-five or thirty recordings of this work and the first two movements here are the fastest I know of. Better performances of the Prokofiev Seventh are available from Richter, Raekallio, Glemser, Pollini and even Ashkenazy himself in his later Decca recording. Regarding the Beethoven sonatas, they too are played at blistering tempos, especially the Waldstein. Moreover, the Waldstein is not only faster than Ashkenazy’s 1975 Decca effort but lacks the first movement repeat, making it a lot shorter. The Sonata No. 32 is the most effective performance on this last disc, though Ashkenazy eliminates a repeat in the first movement, leaving a paltry timing of 7:01, compared with his full version in the later Decca recording’s first movement of 10:02. Both his later accounts of the Beethoven sonatas are better as are several by Brendel, Buchbinder, Barenboim, Schanabel and others. As mentioned earlier, the sound on this disc has a boomy bass and somewhat shrill highs. Still, it’s not bad, far better than the sonics on the first disc’s live performances.

Well, there you have it—there’s much here to enjoy and I’m certainly glad I have this set of the young Ashkenazy’s work. The Chopin Études, Corelli Variations and the two Liszt works make this an especially attractive set. Yes, some performances aren’t quite competitive, but even they are never boring. Not only will Ashkenazy’s admirers covet this set but other keyboard aficionados might want to consider acquiring it as well.

Robert Cummings

CD 1
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No. 2, in F major, Op. 38 [7:20]
Mazurka No. 21, in C-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 4 [3:45]
Mazurka No. 29, in A-flat major, Op. 41, No. 4 [1:47]
Nocturne in B major, Op. 9, No. 3 [5:41]
Etude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6 [1:42]
Etude in C major, Op. 10, No. 1 [1:44]
Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45 [4:18]
Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. [5:38]
Etude in F major, Op. 10, No. 8 [2:00]
Etude in F major, Op. 25, No. 3 [1:34]
Scherzo in E major, Op. 54, No. 4 [8:36]
Barcarolle, Op. 60 [9:05]
rec. 1955 (1-11) Chopin Competition, Warsaw, Poland; 1961 (11), Moscow, Soviet Union

CD 2
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Études, Op. 10
No.1 in C major [2:02]
No.2 in A minor "Chromatique" [1:20]
No.3 in E major "Tristesse" [4:18]
No.4 in C-sharp minor [2:05]
No.5 in G-flat major "Black Keys" [1:40]
No.6 in E-flat minor [4:04]
No.7 in C major [1:30]
No.8 in F major [2:22]
No.9 in F minor [2:16]
No.10 in A-flat major [2:26]
No.11 in E-flat major [2:39]
No.12 in C minor "Revolutionary" [2:45]
Études, Op. 25
No.1 in A-flat major "Harp Study" [2:54]
No.2 in f minor [1:46]
No.3 in F major [1:48]
No.4 in A minor [1:30]
No.5 in E minor [3:21]
No.6 in G-sharp minor [1:52]
No.7 in C-sharp minor [5:28]
No.8 in D-flat major [1:08]
No.9 in G-flat major "Butterfly Wings" [1:00]
No.10 in B minor [4:32]
No.11 in A minor "Winter Wind" [3:52]
No.12 in C minor [2:51]
rec. 1959 (1-14; 18-24); 1960 (15-17), Moscow, Soviet Union

CD 3
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Mephisto Waltz, No. 1 [10:32]
Feux Follets (Transcendental Etude No. 5) [3:22]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka No. 35, in C minor, Op. 56, No. 3 [5:18]
Mazurka No. 36, in A minor, Op. 59, No. 1 [4:08]
Waltz No. 2, in A-flat major, Op. 34, No. 1 [4:33]
Waltz No. 6, in D-flat major, Op. 64, No. 1 [1:49]
Piano Sonata No. 3, in B minor, Op. 58 [26:00]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Variations on a Theme of Corelli [16:05]
rec. 1957 (1-6; 11) Berlin, Germany; 1961 (7-10), Moscow, Soviet Union

CD 4
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata No. 7, in B-flat major, Op. 83 [15:42]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 21, in C major, Op. 53 (Waldstein) [20:43]
Sonata No. 32, in C minor, Op. 111 [24:19]
rec. 1957 (1-3); 1959 (4-8) Berlin, Germany


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