CHOPIN Solo Piano Works (Complete)
Decca 478 2282 (13 CDs)
The long and fruitful partnership between Frédéric Chopin and Vladimir Ashkenazy first came to worldwide attention when the 18-year-old Soviet pianist took the 1955 Warsaw Chopin Competition by storm. Although he ultimately placed second behind Gold Medalist Adam Harasiewicz (wrongly so in the opinion of certain critics and jurors, including Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli), he soon set down memorable Chopin interpretations for EMI and the Russian Melodya label.
After moving to the West in 1963, Ashkenazy began his long affiliation with Decca. Chopin figured among his 1960s studio recordings (the complete Ballades and Scherzi, for example), along with a live 1972 recital consisting of the B flat Minor Sonata, the Nocturnes Op.15 Nos.1 and 2, the Mazurka Op.59 No.2 and the E flat Op.18 Waltz. In 1974 he embarked on a complete solo Chopin cycle (completing the project in 1984), programmed and released on LP in reverse chronological order of compositions, save for the separately issued Opp.10 and 25 Etudes.
On CD, however, Decca reorganized the material by genre, presenting it that way for the cycle’s first integral CD presentation in 1997. The 13-disc set has been repackaged for Chopin’s 200th birthday year, with new annotations by piano expert Jeremy Siepmann. The booklet does not indicate if the recordings have been freshly remastered. At first I thought not, but extensive comparative listening sessions on professional equipment led me to detect (or perhaps imagine) a little more amplitude and clarity from the new transfers, but that may have to do with loudness. Still, the piano’s timbre and tone are absolutely identical between editions (as are Ashkenazy’s occasional vocal grunts!) and there’s no need to upgrade the earlier one, should you already own it.
The Op.28 Preludes fared fabulously in the Seventies, with reference-quality releases from Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, Maurizio Pollini, Murray Perahia, and Ivan Moravec. Ashkenazy clearly belongs in this lineup. His interpretation boasts many arresting details: No.1’s highlighted voice leading, the effortless detaché of No.3’s rapid left hand runs, No.5’s unusual rhythmic accentuations, No.9’s pronounced double-dotted notes, No.22’s booming intensity, plus No.23’s uncommonly moderate tempo and hazy sonority. By and large, the Scherzi boast tighter, better integrated tempo relationships and a wider range of nuance than their aforementioned 1960s counterparts. Ditto for the Ballades, although the earlier versions are captured in closer, more dynamically contrasted perspective.
Wide dynamics and poetic breadth also distinguish Ashkenazy’s Nocturnes. Some succeed better than others: a bleak, matter-of-fact undercurrent prevails throughout Op.55 No.2, undercutting its limpid polyphony, and Op.15 No.2’s lyrical trajectory borders on shapelessness. At the same time, the rolling accompaniments and strategic bass note accents are strong assets, together with the pianist’s occasional surprises – his briskly dispatched Op.37 No.2, for example.
Ashkenazy’s Etudes rocked the piano world at the time of their initial 1975 LP release, with only Pollini’s 1972 DG version offering serious competition. Today, of course, the playing field has considerably leveled and expanded, yet his sparkling and sparsely pedaled Op.10 No.1, mega-secure double notes in Op.10 No.7 and Op.25 No.6, and frighteningly aced ‘stride piano’ skips in Op.25 No.4 (he did this lighter and faster for Melodya, though!) alone explain this recording’s erstwhile reference reputation.
While the mature Polonaises hit and miss under Ashkenazy’s watch (he is relatively flat and characterless in the heroic Opp.44, 53 and 61), for some reason the earlier, slighter works in this genre inspire some of the pianist’s most pointed and supple performances in this collection. So do other minor works like the Rondos (Op.16 captures Ashkenazy at his ebullient, most playful peak), the thanklessly difficult First Sonata, and the uncharacteristically boring (for Chopin) Allegro de concert, Op 46. However, the mature sonatas, F Minor Fantasy and Barcarolle are fussed over and underlined to a fault, whereas the Mazurkas’ varied moods and modes inspire equally diverse and personalized readings that have worn quite well over time.
Given the recordings’ decade-long span from analogue to digital, it is not surprising that the sonics vary from tubby and diffuse to clear and full bodied. Still, everything is more than listenable, and the overall high level of Ashkenazy’s artistry is more than enough to warrant a recommendation for collectors seeking a Chopin cycle with one pianist.