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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptus D946: No. 1 in E flat minor [11:05]; No. 2 in E flat major [10:27]
Fantasia in C major D760 ‘Wanderer Fantasy’ [21:28]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Arabeske in C major Op.18 [7:06]
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor Op.11 [29:57]
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. Studio A, Glasgow, 22 June 1987
ICA CLASSICS ICAD 5101 [79:12]

These performances were filmed in one session in June 1987 in front of an invited audience at the BBC’s Glasgow Studios. The following November the event was broadcast in two separate programmes, one each devoted to Schubert and Schumann.
Here we witness Ashkenazy at the age of forty-nine and in his prime. Most will know him as the joint winner, together with John Ogdon, of the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition. A year later he defected to the west, together with his Icelandic wife, making his home first in London - later in Switzerland. He has since forged a dual career as both pianist and conductor. The latter has taken over now that he has been the unfortunate victim of arthritis, which has curtailed his career as a pianist.
What has always impressed me about Ashkenazy is that he is neither showy nor demonstrative. Sitting very close to the keyboard, there is no excess physicality in his playing. Neither are there those facial contortions and goldfish impressions which put me off watching certain performers. He channels all of his energy and concentration into the music. He is one of the most self-effacing performers I have ever seen. Of significance is an interview with Jessica Duchen, the author of the booklet notes, in which he says that ‘it is my aim to be a servant and bring this music to life’.
The DVD features two composers for whom Ashkenazy has great affection. Indeed there is a wonderful 7 CD set of the solo piano works of Schumann which he recorded for Decca, which I frequently dip into. The recital here begins with Schubert, and the first two Impromptus of D946. I have always known them as Klavierstücke. They were written in the last year of the composer’s life. Ashkenazy captures the contrasts of mood between the work’s sections. They act as an introduction to, what is for me, the highlight of the whole recital, the Wanderer Fantasy. This is a monumental performance and brings together sensitive phrasing and formidable technical skill. He traverses the wide spectrum of emotions, fusing all three sections of the narrative flow into an integrated whole.
The Schumann section begins with a delightful rendition of the Arabeske, Op.18. It is a poetic account, with Ashkenazy gently pointing and teasing out the florid decorative accompaniment to the mellifluous lyrical melody. The contrasting passages are full of passion and yearning. The Sonata is Schumann’s first foray into this form. Despite criticism in some quarters that it suffers in parts from lack of structural cohesion, Ashkenazy is compelling, tapping into all the emotions the work has to offer. There is passion, desperation, joy, and elation, all seemingly underpinned with an emotional fragility.
The venue strikes me as rather drab, with the audience being pitched at some distance from the piano. This results in a certain lack of intimacy. It is difficult to sense any rapport between pianist and audience, their role merely functioning as a backdrop with no more significance than that of wallpaper. Many may find this an advantage as one is not distracted by facial expressions. Neither are the painted murals behind the piano very inspiring. Having said that, the camera-work is well-judged, with a variety of close-up and panning shots. Ashkenazy’s small hands are very much in evidence. Interestingly, Duchen mentions Ashkenazy’s frustration with the diminutive size of his hands. I had read elsewhere that this anatomical deficiency was a factor in his regrettable decision not to tackle the Liszt Sonata. He did, however, reluctantly bow to pressure and learn the Tchaikovsky First for the 1962 competition with sensational results.
The booklet notes are in English, French and German.
Devotees of Ashkenazy’s art, of which I am one, will be pleased with the release of this visual and aural document.
Stephen Greenbank