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On CD: Ashkenazy's Bach

by Mark J. Estren

Bach: Partitas Nos. 1-6, BWV 825-830. Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano. Decca. (2 CDs).

Ashkenazy's first-ever recording of the Bach Partitas, released in August, are available at and elsewhere.

The 73-year-old Vladimir Ashkenazy’s first-ever recording of Bach’s first published work is a feast for the ears if not for historical-performance purists. These are poised, elegant readings, but Ashkenazy does not try to pretend that his Steinway is a harpsichord: He uses the sustaining pedal, taking full advantage of sound carryover between upper and lower lines, but still presents Bach’s contrapuntal structures with clarity.

Every Partita has its high points. The Allemande in No. 1 is fast and light, the Sarabande very touching. Ashkenazy emphasizes the strong dissonance at the open of No. 2, and attacks the Rondeaux and Capriccio with intensity. In No. 3, the Corrente is quick and very scherzo-like, and the sixth movement — which is actually marked “Scherzo” — is also handled with aplomb.
(read more after the jump)

Partita No. 4 opens with a very pianistic first chord introducing a stately “Ouverture.” The Allemande is tender and pastoral, the Sarabande gentle, and the final Gigue very outgoing. No. 5 features a fleet Corrente and some highly adept finger work in the unusual, leap-filled “Tempo di Minuetto.”

Ashkenazy comes closest to a Romantic-era interpretation in the opening Toccata of the very forward-looking Prelude No. 6. In the Corrente, he nicely balances left-hand staccato against right-hand figurations. The Sarabande, featuring the first appearance of what would later be called the “Tristan chord,” is emotive but not overdone. Ashkenazy’s pedal use in the multi-line complexity of the final Gigue does not blur the pervasive counterpoint.

Bach’s Partitas do sound better when sensitively played on harpsichord: Some of the effects clearly require strings that are plucked, not struck, and registration changes between movements add color. But Ashkenazy’s eminently listenable recording is an excellent choice for anyone wanting to hear these masterworks performed by a truly thoughtful pianist.

— Mark J. Estren

By Anne Midgette  |  September 6, 2010; 5:21 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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Thank you for the thoughtful review. I'd disagree with the blanket assertion that these pieces "sound better" on the harpsichord, though. Recordings by pianists Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, and Angela Hewitt are the gold standard in Bach performance on the keyboard today.

Posted by: Lutoslawski | September 6, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

He didn't make a blanket assertion that the pieces sound better on harpsichord. He said they sound better "when sensitively played on harpsichord." I happen to agree, but I still enjoy Bach when sensitively played on piano.

Posted by: clarino | September 7, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

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