Monday, 15 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninoff - 24 Preludes - Ashkenazy - rec. 1975, DECCA Originals

Sergei Rachmaninoff
(1873 - 1943)

Prelude Op. 3 No. 2
10 Preludes, Op. 23 
13 Preludes, Op. 32

Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano

Recorded in 1974-75

Perhaps I am being sentimental...

But I still find Ashkenazy's recording of Rachmaninoff's complete preludes one of the finest. Admittedly, my only other experience with a complete recording of these lovely pieces is Weissenberg's crude and insensitive one on RCA. Of course there is the amazing Nikolai Lugansky, whose Preludes Op. 23 for Erato are stupendous, but even his incandescent pianism does not erase memories of Ashkenazy more lyrical but equally moving approach. Besides, Lugansky's collection is pretty incomplete. (Did he ever record the Preludes Op. 32? If he did, I have never heard them). At any rate, despite a little over-caution here and there, Ashkenazy remains, for me, an excellent choice for a complete recording of these marvellously original and monstrously under-recorded works. And there are many individual highlights as well.

To be sure, Vladimir Ashkenazy is not the most imaginative or most daring pianist in the world. But he is certainly one of the most sensitive. The more lyrical preludes are his forte, and Op. 23 Nos. 1, 4 and 10 as well as the famous Op. 32 Nos. 5 and 12 are well worth hearing for the subtlety with which Ashkenazy reveals Rachmaninoff's melodic and harmonic richness. This is not to say that in the more extroverted preludes he is technically handicapped or anything like that. The only slight disappointment is the ubiquitous G minor prelude (Op. 23 No. 5) where he gets the tempo right but lacks completely the crispness and precision of Lugansky or the emotional explosion of Horowitz. But in the ebullient Op. 23 No. 2 or the menacing Op. 23 No. 6 Ashkenazy displays an excellent balance between stunning virtuosity, crashing left hand, and an exquisite handling of the melodic line. He does only slightly less well in the apocalyptic middle section of Op. 32 No. 4 or the majestic Op. 32 No. 10, reportedly Rachmaninoff's favourite piece from the cycle. The last prelude, Op. 32 No. 13, is one of the finest examples of something typical for Ashkenazy: achieving massive sound without resorting to ugly banging.

The sound quality is excellent, especially for a DECCA recording of solo piano made in 1974-75; I have heard a great deal worse sound in most of Jorge Bolet's recordings for the same label a decade or so later. I am curious what kind of piano Ashkenazy used in these sessions. Surely it is no Steinway, the lighter but more luminous sound suggests Bechstein and this may have something to do with a sound which is not found on record as often as it should be. At any rate, the piano sounds perfectly natural and the sonority has a wonderful depth; only very occasionally slight harshness in the treble or certain flatness in the bass mars the otherwise impeccable sonics, but neither is a big deal.

I appreciate Mr Grabowski's informed opinion, and I will give Richter a try if he insists, but I venture to differ with him as to the merits of Ashkenazy's preludes. There is more than completeness to recommend this set. Except for the slightly disappointing G minor, Ashkenazy easily stands comparison with the more technically accomplished Lugansky and he is way superior to Weissenberg's incoherent playing. With the same exception in mind, he is not so inferior to any of the preludes recorded by Rachmaninoff himself or Horowitz, though he of course doesn't have the originality of either. Nevertheless, as far as sheer musicianship is concerned, Vladimir Ashkenazy remains one of the finest combinations of poetry and power in Rachmaninoff’s I can think of. As a bonus, you get the preludes complete and in one very well-filled disc (80 full minutes).

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