Label : Decca
Lossless + Cover
Not my rip

To celebrate Vladimir Ashkenazy’s fifty-year association with Decca, the label has brought out a fifty-disc box set that judiciously surveys the pianist and conduc- tor’s prolific discography and wide-ranging repertoire. Ordered in more-or-less chronological sequence, the individual volumes appear as facsimiles of their original LP or CD incarnations and are often filled out with bonus selections. Although it used to be easy to take Ashkenazy’s prodigious output and dependable keyboard consistency for granted, the high standards of his best piano recordings easily stand the test of time. Any pianist would be happy to claim Ashkenazy’s effortless yet mindful way with Rachmaninoff’s concertos, Paganini Rhapsody and Preludes; or the fusion of necromantic drama and textural clarity in Scriabin’s sonatas and rarely heard Piano Concerto. The 2006 Diabelli Variations recording and a selection of sonatas reveal how Ashkenazy’s underrated solo Beethoven performances became increasingly forthright and sharply contoured over time. The same composer’s concertos are culled from Ashkenazy’s three complete cycles, although they are not necessarily the pianist’s best versions of these works. One could also argue that the sixties Chopin scherzos and ballades are not so cohesive as their seventies counterparts, but the Etudes remain a strong reference version. So does the critically acclaimed 1996/8 set of Shostakovich’s Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues.

The Mozart K. 246 and K. 271 Concertos with Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony are more incisive than those in Ashkenazy’s complete Mozart cycle led from the keyboard, although there are no complaints about the latter’s K. 467 and K. 453 included here. A disc from the eighties solo Schumann project features a Symphonic Etudes that is less well played and recorded than the 1965 version that Decca should have included. However, the young pianist’s formidable Prokofievian prowess (Sonatas 7 & 8) leads into a Liszt Mephisto Waltz No. 1 whose right hand skips are the stuff of pianophile legend. Concertos by Prokofiev (Nos. 2 and 3) and Bartók (Nos. 1 and 2) continue to equal if not surpass their contemporary and future competitors.

Ashkenazy’s breadth and scope as a collaborative pianist gets plenty of coverage, too. The Russian songs he made with soprano Elisabeth Söderström deserve serious attention, not to mention the Shostakovich and Brahms Piano Quintet recordings plus Mozart/Schumann piano duos with the sadly short-lived Malcolm Frager. Among memorable encounters with violinist Itzhak Perlman chosen for inclusion, no chamber music library can be without the big-boned, impassioned Franck Sonata or the most soaring and uplifting Brahms Horn Trio (with Barry Tuckwell) since the 78 RPM era.

If Ashkenazy the pianist bounced upon the international scene fully formed, it took a bit longer for his conducting to find its center; compare the Tchaikovsky Fourth, Sibelius Second and Beethoven Fifth Symphonies’ inconsistent balances and downplayed accents to the unquestionable authority of the Concertgebouw Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances or the Cleveland Orchestra Strauss Tone Poems and Prokofiev Cinderella and you’ll hear what I mean. Still, the 1978 Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra ranks among the work’s top two or three versions, while the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra’s superb Shostakovich “Leningrad” Symphony’s final peroration is a veritable roof-raiser. The collection comes with a one-hundred-ninety page booklet that includes complete recording session data and production credits, an essay by Ashkenazy’s long-time producer Andrew Cornall; texts and translations; plus two complete discographies covering Ashkenazy’s Decca recordings as pianist and conductor. A fitting tribute to a vital and still-inspiring musician.

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