The elusive Vladimir Ashkenazy

One of music’s most solid and ubiquitous pianists of the last six decades, Vladimir Ashkenazy has celebrated his 85th birthdaye Birthday on July 6th. On this occasion, Decca finally releases all his solo recordings, a monumental edition of 89 CDs. What can we conclude about the legacy of the pianist of Russian origin? Is such an investment justified for discophiles?

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s discography is simple and complex. Simply because Ashkenazy became a Decca artist very early in his career. The “Decca Legacy” therefore represents the immense part of his recording legacy. Complex, because his very diverse talents make him a soloist, chamber music partner and conductor. His multiple discography spans well over 200 CDs, resulting in selective or segmented reissues.

Decca mixed the two. Segmentation on the one hand with the 80th anniversary The complete recordings of the piano concerto (2017), followed by this series of Complete solo recordings. selectivity against it Ashkenazy, 50 years on Decca (2013) and artist choice. The solo and chamber recordings (2017). The new version presents us with a puzzle reminiscent of the complete Boulez at DG, but three times more complex…


In order to understand Vladimir Ashkenazy’s art, it is useful to mention some bibliographic references. Winner of the Queen Elizabeth (1956) and Tchaikovsky (1962) competitions, runner-up in the Chopin Competition (1955), he was a child prodigy of his generation. The genesis of Ashkenazy, born in 1937, predates those of Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire and Mitsuko Uchida.

In 1961, Ashkenazy married an Icelander, Thorunn Sofia Johannisdottir, who was studying at the Moscow Conservatory. In 1963 he fled the Soviet Union with his wife and initially settled in London. Having become Icelandic in 1972, after immigrating there in 1968, he was able to secretly pursue a sideline: conducting an orchestra. The Ashkenazy family then settled in Switzerland (1978), the conductor and pianist also adopted this nationality. In November 1989 he returned to Russia for the first time.

He took over Ashkenazy’s first major musical direction in 1987 with the Royal London Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1989 with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The rise of his activity as a conductor coincided with Decca’s need to rapidly feed its CD catalog (CD technology was commercialized in 1982-1983). Unlike Daniel Barenboim, another pianist converted to conducting, Ashkenazy’s level of pianism has not been eroded by his hyperactivity. He has largely retained the image of a pianist-conductor and not a conductor who also plays the piano on the side.

Ashkenazy first entered a recording studio for Decca in November 1963 to cut three Study painting op. 39 by Rachmaninoff. When it was in 2013 to celebrate the 50the On the anniversary of this collaboration, Decca drew on music for solo piano, chamber music, concertos and symphonic music.

In 2017, on the occasion of the conductor’s 80th birthday, Decca published the complete concertos engraved by the pianist and the other artist choicea selection by Ashkenazy from his solo and chamber music recordings.

For fans who bought the 50 box seteWhere artist choice, even dropping an integral is a source of frustration due to duplicates. It’s a big cheer for the commentator since he’s got the box on hand artist choice, it is to confront one’s own view of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s discography with the pianist’s critical view of himself!

Among the 56 CDs fromartist choice, Ashkenazy had selected 32 solo piano records. Knowing there were 89 CDs in all, he had therefore left 57 aside. Additionally, 10 of the 14 piano CDs from Ashkenazy’s 50th anniversary with Decca match the selections the musician made four years later. The four “rejected” CDs are the studies by Chopin, the Hammer keyboard by Beethoven (second recording), the sonatas nOh 1, 5, 6 and 7 by Beethoven and the CD Arabesque, Butterflies, Symphonic Etudes by Schumann.

What was very important to Ashkenazy in 2017 was his contribution to defending Russia’s heritage. He certainly wanted to show that his love for the culture of his native land was proportional to his hatred of the political regime he was fleeing.

Highlighted: all his Shostakovich recordings (Preludes and Fugues and collection of works for piano); she pictures of an exhibition with other Russian scores; seasons by Tchaikovsky; three of his four Scriabin recordings (all including sonatas); four of the seven CDs of his complete Rachmaninoff and all of his Prokofiev recordings, with the duplicate of Sonata No. 7 and 8th. It’s a very strong statement of faith.

Of the 17 “Western” music CDs, three were fully booked Well-tempered keyboard von Bach, a belated love of Ashkenazy. Three Chopin records: his first two (Ballads, Scherzi) and its second version of preludeswith the 3e sonata. By Schumann, in 3 CDs, Chic (twice), Symphonic etudes, Kreisleriana, Abegg Variations, Viennese carnival, humoresque (the latter, his best Schumann). From Schubert, the Sonatas D. 664, 784 and specially, 850one of his great achievements in all repertoires.

On the remaining four CDs we find the music of Howard Blake, who 3e sonata by Brahms, the Sonatas KV 311, 457 and 570 of Mozart and Beethoven, the Diabelli Variations.

This paints us a portrait of Ashkenazy that he saw himself. The mark he hopes to leave in Russian music in particular is that of the pupil of Lev Oborine, the first winner of the Chopin Competition, with less massive sound and less emphatic expression than other Russians of his time. This transmission also took place with Chopin, which brought Ashkenazy first notoriety in the West.

sound conversion

The integral reminds us that Ashkenazy engraved all Chopin, all Rachmaninoff. It is interesting to see what immediately distinguishes them in Beethoven Diabelli Variations what he “saves” is the adequacy of the sound with the musical purpose.

Indeed, and this is the Integral’s most important lesson, despite Decca’s prominence in the technical field, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s piano recordings failed to impose a pianist-associated sonic aesthetic. There is an “Arrau sound”, a “Brendel sound”, but no “Ashkenazy sound” apart from a kind of crucible of compromises, so heterogeneous, especially within the same projects (sonatas von Beethoven) that one wonders what the pianist really liked.

In our time, which clearly associates a musical message and its pianistic sound with pianists such as Arcadi Volodos, Louis Lortie, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Nelson Goerner or Pavel Kolesnikov, many recordings by Ashkenazy sound like enigmas without being dishonorable. . Puzzles that he let happen and published.

However, we can guess his “line” by the style. For that we have to put those aside a priori. The fact of being Russian stuck to the performer’s skin at a time when so much effort was being put into categorizing pianists by ‘school’ rather than seeing their individuality. Ashkenazy is not a cold, harsh, flashy and indifferent “Russian style”; it is indeed an intelligent “factual” (less radical than Zoltan Kocsis) that seeks an efficiency that comes from the score and not from what might be added to it.

In that sense, there is more musical nourishment to listening to this integral than we imagined. The fact remains that Decca has certainly shot itself in the foot with its previous releases.

The contents of the box do not bring us any surprises, novelties or great rarities. We can see in hindsight that Ashkenazy only touched Liszt once and sensibly revived some of Beethoven’s great sonatas, Beethoven’s as reissued as his Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

Attention, the works for two pianos, like the Rachmaninoffs with Previn, are not included. They will be found in the future box” Ashkenazy—Complete Chamber Recordings “. The one who goes ahead Ashkenazy—Complete Orchestral Recordings »…

Vladimir Ashkenazy — Complete solo recordings

89 CDs and 1 Blu-ray (Chopin, Rachmaninoff, selected pieces) 4852409.

To see in the video

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