He is a versatile pianist, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and over the
course of his long career he has put out recordings of almost
every important work of the Romantic era, with a large proportion
coming close to definitive status. He is a product of the Soviet
system, where rigorous technique came first, and putting some
real weight on the keys was de rigueur. But as his fine
Chopin recordings, to give just one example, demonstrate, he
is also a pianist with a sensitive side who can make melodies
sing and can draw out all sorts of subtle textures.
All of which makes him the ideal interpreter for Sibelius. His
playing here does the composer's piano miniatures many favours.
His playing style is always definite but never pedantic, and
despite his vintage - I calculate he is 73 - he still has the
dexterity to pull off Sibelius's many fast accompaniment textures
with grace and elegance.
The programming here is interesting. Ashkenazy avoids the longer
piano works and sticks to the miniatures, which on the whole
are presented as complete opus sets. As the opus numbers demonstrate,
the works span the composer's life, or at least the part of
it in which he was writing music. Despite that, the overriding
impression is of stylistic continuity. Almost every work is
based on a theme with strong melodic identity, and presented
in a context of flowing and idiomatic accompanying figures.
The sound quality is very good and is up to the usual high standards
set by the Exton label. The SACD sound allows the timbral identity
of the pianos to come through well, with all those higher harmonics
really doing their job. Listeners who appreciate some atmosphere
in their piano recordings may be disappointed, however. For
one thing, there is no surround mix, it is CD and stereo SACD
only. Also, the microphones are placed up close and there is
very little ambient resonance. The main part of the recording
was made in a concert hall, but you wouldn't know that to listen
to it. I've no objections myself to this matter-of-fact style
of audio presentation, although it is perhaps out of step with
the almost impressionistic sound-painting in many of the works.
The one show-stopper on the disc is Sibelius's own transcription
of his Valse Triste, which both opens and closes the
programme. The last rendition is on Sibelius's own piano at
his home, Ainola north of Helsinki. It's a gimmick really, and
Ashkenazy is not the first to have paid homage to the composer
in this way. It is a nice sign-off though, and both the piano
itself and the audio that the engineers manage in this less
than ideal environment are better than you'd imagine. All round,
this disc is an attractive proposition, with Exton demonstrating
that top quality audio is not just a benefit in orchestral recordings;
it has a great deal to offer the piano repertoire too.