Top Ear

Ashkenazy’s Rachmaninov Complete Piano Works

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Leonard Ip writes (translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee)

This is the first time Decca has boxed and reissued Ashkenazy’s Rachmaninov piano recordings recorded from 1963 to 2012. To compile Rachmaninov’s “Complete works for piano”, Decca has included Ashkenazy’s remake of the concerti with Bernard Haitink in lieu of the more famous first version with André Previn. This “complete” set is not as comprehensive as Howard Shelley’s traversal on Hyperion, as Decca only includes the Piano Sonata No. 2’s original 1913 version, thereby excluding the 1931 revised version (not to mention Horowitz’s 1940 combined version), but other works, big and small, are to be found in this set, and the Études Tableaux Op. 39, Corelli Variations and the Suite for Two Pianos No. 1 all feature both of Ashkenazy’s recorded versions. As it is impossible to review all 11CDs in detail, here are some highlights:

Piano Concerti: The selection of the Haitink remakes (from 1986-1987) is a wise choice. Firstly, the Previn versions have been reissued countless times while Haitink’s has been languishing out of print for the longest time. Moreover, the Haitink versions have their virtues: in the four concertos the Concertgebouw Orchestra outclasses the London Symphony Orchestra for Previn in every aspect (the Paganini Variations are done with the Philharmonia Orchestra), and the recording’s balance and depth are audibly superior. As for Ashkenazy, his performance in the 1st and 4th concertos as well as the Rhapsody are equally as good as his first takes, and while in the 3rd Ashkenazy’s remake is superior, the 2nd concerto finds Ashkenazy in better form with Previn. In sum these performances with Haitink are generally of a higher standard than Previn’s—surely, Ashkenazy has done a few more other versions of the 2nd and 3rd concerto individually (I prefer the 2nd with Kondrashin and the 3rd with Ormandy), but obtaining this complete set would be more convenient for collectors.

Piano Sonatas: The Second dates from 1982 while the First was recorded in 2011. Comparing the recording quality reveals a world of difference: the reverberant, golden-toned 1982 London Decca piano sound is replaced by a more neutral-sounding recording in 2011. Having said that, Ashkenazy hasn’t changed a lot: his style still retains a strong Russian robustness, and the recordings of both the sonatas are interpreted rationally and steadily, but in terms of drama and explosiveness they cannot be compared to Ogdon (RCA) or Weissenberg (DG).

Two piano works: The recordings with Previn are quite popular, but I find them too dutiful and lacking in the color that is essential to Rachmaninov. In terms of volatility and excitement they naturally pale against Argerich’s versions, and considering humor and sculpting of tone color they do not match Ax/Bronfman (Sony). In contrast, the 2011 recording with Ashkenazy’s son Vovka is exquisitely detailed through sparse use of pedal, and is worth listening to.

Études Tableaux and Preludes: These are the most reliable versions currently available, and highlight the composer’s more pensive, melancholy side through maintaining a rational narrative and avoiding being over the top. If you want a version that brings Rachmaninov’s fiery passion to the fore, Ogdon (EMI/Testament) is the one to go to, but Ashkenazy is able to bring the listener deep into the annals of Rachmaninov’s shady inner world, and he is also more secure technically and pays greater attention to detail. Compared to my top choice in the complete Preludes, Alexeev (Virgin), Ashkenazy’s style seems one-dimensional, and he is not as sensitive to the beauty of Rachmaninov’s writing as Alexeev, but technically it is an extremely accomplished reading.

Miniatures: It was only until I read the contents of this box that I discovered that Rachmaninov actually wrote so many miniatures. Ashkenazy displays his light-hearted side in these recordings. The recordings of the transcriptions from 2002 and miniatures from 2012 (the original CD is named “Rachmaninov Rarities”) is played with interesting quirkiness (a dance for trumpet and piano four hands is particularly interesting), and while there may be some more interesting renditions to be heard elsewhere (for example Horowitz’s Polka de W.R.), it’s impossible to be too picky with Ashkenazy’s recordings of these pieces.

Ashkenazy has never been the most characterful interpreter, so basically in all the types of pieces mentioned above, there exist individual recordings that surpass him. If you want a piano concerto set, I will still recommend Kocsis/de Waart (Philips) as the first choice (not to mention the individual sonatas). But as a whole, this set of Rachmaninov’s complete piano works score a high average in terms of performance and recording quality, and is much more economical than Shelley’s set. And while Ashkenazy is constantly deemed “reliable”, come to think of it “reliability” itself is a virtue—will you dare to say that Shelley is a more reliable pianist than Ashkenazy? I don’t.


  • Album name:  Rachmaninov:  Complete Works for Piano
  • Performers:  Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano);  Concertos:  Bernard Haitink (conductor);  Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
  • Label:  Decca 478 6348
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD/DDD
  • Total playing time:  13:26:40

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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