Leonard Ip writes [translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee]
Recently there have been many record companies who have issued artist-themed “big box sets”. These boxes usually contain tens of CDs which include most of the recorded output of that artist for the label. Decca’s Ashkenazy 50 release, however, is a little bit different: 50 CDs is surely a big number for a box set, but that’s still a smidgen compared to Ashkenazy’s massive output for the label, both as a pianist and as a conductor. In 1963, Decca issued Ashkenazy’s first recording: that of Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto with Anatole Fistoulari. 50 years later, he has evolved from a soloist to a pianist-conductor, and has undoubtedly become one of the most recorded musicians ever.
Let’s start with the presentation of this set. It’s called “Original jacket collection”, and that means the cardboard envelopes housing the CDs bear the cover art of the original LP. There are 2 albums here that require 2 CDs, and Decca has chosen to design a double-CD cardboard envelope to house them together, which is of course very nice, but the downside as you would imagine is that the discs are quite difficult to retrieve. The booklet notes are a whopping 190 pages long, and it includes an index of works arranged according to composer, the CD track listings, texts with English translations, Ashkenazy’s complete Decca discography (divided into his solo and orchestral work), an essay written by Decca producer Andrew Cornall, as well as a Japanese essay on this box set. Overall, it’s a very thoughtful and professional presentation.
Let’s proceed to the content of this box. 50 CDs may be a trifle, but the works included here are representative enough of Ashkenazy’s output, which includes, besides solo and orchestral work, accompaniment for other instrumental soloists and chamber music. The pieces span a huge variety, from his signature Chopin and Rachmaninov and some warhorse piano concertos, to Austro-Germanic, Russian, and French music, and then to his conducting projects of Sibelius and Richard Strauss. Many of his most famous recordings are included here, as well as some forgotten gems.
Speaking of gems, one has to refer to the songs included in the set. The songs of Shostakovich and Mussorgsky are not often recorded at all (especially the former), so it’s nice to know that Ashkenazy recorded the former’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op. 145 with John Shirley-Quirk and the latter’s The Nursery with Elizabeth Soderstrom. Some songs by Gretchaninov and Rachmaninov are also included. Even if these recordings weren’t out of print, an average music lover would be hard pressed to even find them, let alone get the chance to hear them. Of course, the fact that these songs were included in this box at all shows the pianist’s wide-spanning repertoire, and they also represent an appreciable service to music lovers: the Shostakovich songs are disturbingly austere, as modernistic as Alban Berg, while the Mussorgsky is filled with rustic color and humour. Both sets of songs are well worth investigating.
Ashkenazy’s pianism has been the source of various debates over the years, but the general consensus is that his style is invariably “safe and reliable”, but lacking that spark of inspiration, let alone approaching greatness. Wong Muk’s essay “Pianists’ styles and their origins” described Ashkenazy’s playing as the epitome of the “efficient interpretation” style of the 1980s. This view certainly isn’t unwarranted: of Ashkenazy’s enormous output of piano recordings from the 1970s to the 1990s, many can be described merely as “correct” or “characterless”, such as his Chopin waltzes and nocturnes, Schubert pieces, and Mozart and Beethoven piano concerti. Of that litter of recordings, there are of course a few that is less dour than the rest, but rarely a recording has ever made it to the cream of the crop: take his Schumann, Brahms concerti and middle-to-late Beethoven sonatas as examples. What is more, while Ashkenazy subscribes to the school of “modern pianism” in which rationality and fidelity in interpretation is emphasized, he cannot be compared with Pollini or Brendel in terms of the insight he brings to the Austro-Germanic works.
Thankfully, while this box set cannot avoid including the more mundane recordings, there are also plenty besides that are of artistic merit. We have his Chopin Études, comparable to Pollini’s excellent version on DG, and his Chopin 2nd piano concerto with Zinman and the LSO, which is a poetic and dazzling rendition. We have the Rachmaninov Préludes, full of a burly, Russian brand of passion (despite being less memorable than Richter’s). We also have a fluid, precise 1985 recording of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, a Liszt Mephisto Waltz that ranks as one of the most exciting recordings of the work, and a surprisingly inspired Schumann Fantasy from 1965. His Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues is one of his specialties, and is one of the most excellent modern recordings of the piece alongside Scherbakov on Naxos and Jenny Lin on Hannsler. His Beethoven Diabelli Variations, too, is a veritable achievement, imbued with a sense of freedom and humour you’d struggle to find in his careful set of sonatas recorded years ago. As for the chamber music: his Mozart Two Piano Sonata with Malcolm Frager is my personal favorite, direct and precise yet full of gusto; his Franck and Beethoven violin sonatas with Perlman are modern classics, while his Shostakovich Piano Quintet with the Fitzwilliam Quartet is excellently balanced and lacks nothing in fire behind Argerich on EMI.
If Ashkenazy the pianist may be a bit too obedient, Ashkenazy the conductor rarely disappoints, and there are often surprises in interpretation. The orchestral recordings are highlights in Ashkenazy’s career as a conductor: his first orchestral recording, of Beethoven’s 5th and 7th symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is a solid effort that is impressive for a musician who has previously never focused on conducting, while snippets from his acclaimed Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky symphony cycles are also featured. Ashkenazy’s steady style is manifest in these orchestral recordings, and the quality of the playing and recording is also very high. The sincerity of the music-making, too, is often more evident than his less distinguished solo recordings: if I were to introduce Ashkenazy the musician to novices, I would be more willing to start with his orchestral recordings. Of the recordings selected here, the Rachmaninov Symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet music and Shostakovich’s 7th symphony are all some of the best interpretations out there, and spectacularly recorded to boot.
Appraising Ashkenazy’s career reminds me of Rubinstein’s. Both have exceptionally lengthy performing careers, and somehow Ashkenazy’s musicality is strikingly similar to Rubinstein’s: Ashkenazy has a brilliant technique, but he rarely shows it off like a virtuoso, crowd-pleasing pianist would, nor does he have Richter’s depth or Horowtiz’s neurotics. Like Rubinstein, Ashkenazy’s musicality is highly accessible, and even if he does show off his technique, the overall impression is ultimately that of good sense and rationality. Rehearing his Rachmaninov 3rd piano concerto with Fistoulari, or his Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto with Maazel, I have realized the pieces’ intricate poetry, which makes my impression of Ashkenazy’s performance on the whole more relaxed and genteel than so many other famous pianists who have tackled the pieces, especially Russian pianists. Besides, there’s an exception to the accusation of “boredom” in his Chopin set (besides the Chopin Études): his Sonatas are successful because they are straightforward and uncontrived; the power of the narrative is abundant, and deserves to be included in this big box in lieu of the Four Ballades.
But back on topic: Ashkenazy’s has recorded on these 50 discs what many musicians would struggle to record in their entire career, let alone Ashkenazy’s entire output over 50 years (of course, it could be those musicians’ choice not to record so much). That the average quality of his output never once dips below “poor” (despite being perpetually “reliable”) is a wonder in itself. These 50 CDs contain the crème de la crème of Ashkenazy’s recordings, and I believe it would hardly disappoint anyone who bought it.
- Album name: Ashkenazy: 50 Years on Decca (Original Jacket Collection)
- Performers: Vladimir Ashkenazy (pianist and conductor); Various artists
- Label: Decca 478 509-3
- No. of discs: 50
- Sonics: Stereo ADD/DDD