The first thing to strike the listener at the outset of the Waldstein is the remarkably lifelike recording. After a while, though, the very closeness of the instrument becomes something of a problem, with some harshness in louder and higher passages. Ashkenazy eases the pace with pleasing naturalness for the second subject, and gives us the first movement repeat, just as we would expect. Rapid figuration is done with a classical grace and restraint, but the pianist does not hold back when greater power is required, to the point that one begins to wonder if the harshness already noted is due solely to the closeness of the recording. Overall, though, this first movement is finely done, with a most convincing command of the movement’s architecture. The slow movement is short, and the composer gave it the title Introduzione. It opens in F major and closes in the dominant of C major, the key of the finale, thus fulfilling the function implied by its title. But it is much more than an introduction, or even an interlude, its twenty-eight bars amounting to a meditation on matters too weighty for words. Ashkenazy communicates its inward and reflective nature with great skill and conviction. The finale brings a serious disappointment, however. The composer was careful to mark when the sustaining pedal was to be applied in these magical opening bars, and the harmonic clashes so created were clearly intended. Ashkenazy chooses not to respect these indications, and the passage, also played at a deliberate tempo, consequently loses much of its very particular beauty and charm. The remainder of the movement is finely done, and the thundering coda, with its hair-raising trills, is rendered with great power.
The Hammerklavier is one of the three or four monuments of the piano repertoire. Ashkenazy recorded the work again in 1980, but this 1967 performance is billed as a first international CD release. He is one of the world’s greatest pianists, but I have to register a certain disappointment with this performance of the Hammerklavier. The work needs to give the impression of a composer almost at the end of his tether, pushing both the musical material and the instrument itself to the limits of tolerance. Ashkenazy’s playing, from one minute to the next, cannot be faulted in technical terms, but the result is curiously bland. The forceful passages, when compared directly with several recorded rivals, communicate less successfully the almost superhuman struggle involved, and the more reflective passages, the long slow movement in particular, seem uncommunicative when set beside, say, Paul Lewis’s remarkable reading on Harmonia Mundi. This slow movement requires almost as much effort and concentration on the part of listener as it does on the part of the performer, and I’m rather ashamed to admit that my attention wandered in this performance. Ashkenazy neutralises somewhat the hiccupping rhythm of the scherzo by hammering out the first beat of each bar, an unpleasant effect I don’t recall hearing elsewhere. The finale is stupendously played, but the counterpoint is less clearly delineated than in Lewis’s performance, less so than in the remarkable 1998 performance from Giovanni Bellucci on Assai, and certainly less so than Ronald Brautigam on Bis, which I reviewed recently, though Brautigam is clearly helped by the period instrument.
As a keen follower of the Eloquence catalogue, I’m disappointed not to be more enthusiastic about these two performances. Admirers of Ashkenazy need not hesitate, though, and others wanting this combination of works and uninterested in the wholly artificial pastime of comparing one performance with another, will probably be perfectly happy too.
The disc is accompanied by the usual astute and communicative booklet note from Jed Distler, definitely a point in favour of all the recent Eloquence discs I have encountered.