Vladimir Ashkenazy—BACH: French Suites—Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano—Decca 483-2150—82:52 ***1/2

Vladimir Ashkenazy is a name with which I’ve been familiar for many years. As a former resident of Cleveland, where he was for many years the guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, I had the opportunity to see him lead that orchestra. And despite turning 80 this year, he’s still an active musician, returning to piano literature for Decca.

Bach’s French Suites (BWV 812-817) are, like his partitas, English Suites, and the ordres and suites of other baroque composers (François Couperin and George Frederick Handel come to mind), a collection of “dances” composed around a key center. Unlike his partitas, however, Bach’s French suites are composed on a smaller scale, dispensing with any overtures or preludes. And somewhat uncharacteristic of Bach, the treatment of voices across the two hands is less contrapuntal than we might expect. In Bach’s day, the clavichord and harpsichord would have been the appropriate keyboard instruments for these works. In using a modern piano, the modern performer has the opportunity to introduce dynamic contrasts and a wider variety of articulation.

Ashkenazy applies a fairly consistent approach in his recording of the French Suites. He treats the two hands more or less as equals, in terms of volume, and applies a slight ritardando at the conclusion of each dance. He follows Bach’s repeats, as the dances are all in binary form. He adds the ornaments, as written, but refrains from applying is own. Dynamic contrasts are most apparent between dances, with Ashkenazy treating contrasts within the dances more conservatively. He uses pedal (in contrast to pianist András Schiff), but his articulation is clear and consistent. The recorded sound of his piano is excellent: the recording was made close to the instrument and the sound is pristine and with no noise or unwanted air in the recording.

When I compared Ashkenazy’s recording to others in my collection in search of counterpoint to his approach, I noticed right away a very mild looseness of time in his maintenance of rhythm. Although a fan of extremes in tempo, Glenn Gould’s recording from 1973 is bouncy in comparison, in lock-step with a metronome. (In comparison, Gould’s lock-step approach with slower trills today feels esoteric.) The regular pulse in Blandine Rannou’s version on harpsichord is quite strong too, which is remarkable in comparison for her inability to weight the beginnings of phrases dynamically with volume. In Ashkenazy’s performance of the Air from suite no. 2, the pulse is easily felt, but ebbs somewhat near the end. In the Anglaise from suite no. 3 the pulse is less sure. The walking bass in the Sarabande of suite no. 4 is not as even as the right hand. In the Menuet from no. 4, however, Ashkenazy is tighter. The dance forms are based on real dance forms, however Bach’s music isn’t dance music, and the nuances in microtiming here add a palpable charm to the reading.

Ashkenazy’s Bach, to my ears, is a very personal, inward-looking approach. The intimacy of the recorded sound conveys a private reverie with this music, as if we are witness to this man playing Bach for his own enjoyment. The approach is a simple one, without exploiting any extremes of tempo, volume, or pianistic affectation. After several listens, I felt as if I was permitted a comfortable seat in Ashkenazy’s living room, rather than a seat in the mezzanine in a concert hall.

— Sebastian Herrera