Sergei Vasil’yevich RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Complete Works for Piano
See end of review for detailed contents
Vladimir, Vovka and Dody Ashkenazy, André Previn (pianos)
Alistair Mackie (trumpet)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. 1963-2013 (ADD/DDD)
DECCA 478 6348 [11 CDs: 13:29:04]

There’s never been a better time to buy reasonably priced box sets. Typically this Ashkenazy compendium retails for around £42, or less than £4 a disc; that may not be as cheap as some, but then this is essential repertoire featuring one of the finest pianists of the past half century. Also, it’s recorded in generally top-notch sound by those wizards at Decca. Ashkenazy is joined here by his sons and André Previn, the latter no mean ivory-tickler himself. Alistair Mackie, the Philharmonia’s principal trumpet, makes a fleeting appearance too. The discs, presented in cardboard sleeves, fit snugly in a sturdy cardboard box. Oh, and there’s a decent booklet as well. In short, a quality package.
So, what of the music? CD1 starts, appropriately enough, with a lovely, lyrical account of Rachmaninov’s Op. 1 concerto. Haitink and the Concertgebouw are robust and big-boned, a strong contrast to the soloist’s clean, unexaggerated pianism. There are more transparent recordings around – Valentina Lisitsa’s very recent one springs to mind – but every nuance of Ashkenazy’s performance is well caught. The slow movement is especially fine, and it all ends in a last-minute sprint of breathtaking bravura from all concerned.
The generosity of spirit that informs so much of what Ashkenazy does - on both the platform and the podium - is discernible throughout this set. It’s certainly there in his good, solid performance of the fourth concerto, which has another poised and pellucid slow movement; that said, the Concertgebouw are less effusively recorded this time. The Philharmonia make an excellent backing band for the Paganini Rhapsody, whose endless invention and sparkle always catches me by surprise. Again Ashkenazy gives a nicely articulated and rhythmically astute performance, although in this age of runaway talent – Yevgeny Sudbin is a good example of the breed – his playing may seem too self-effacing for some.
CD2 kicks off with the second concerto. It’s not one of Ashkenazy’s best performances; his earlier account with Previn and the LSO has an electrical charge that I don’t sense here. It’s all very civilised though; indeed, the well-upholstered sound is a good metaphor for this performance as a whole. Thankfully there’s a bit more lift and bounce to the third concerto, but again those reared on recent recordings may prefer more on-the-sleeve pianism. That’s just not Ashkenazy’s way – or Haitink’s for that matter – and what you get instead is thoughtful, unaffected musicianship that brings its own rewards.
Previn is the second pianist in the two-piano pieces on CD3. The recording level may seem rather low after those orchestral blockbusters, but the level of inspiration and execution is very high. The Op. 5 suite has some charming things - the delicately rocking Barcarolle is a special treat, as are the antiphonal effects of Night for Love, for instance. There are mercurial ones too, notably the Petrushka-like rush and rollick of Russian Easter. If anything the dance-dominated second suite is even more commanding, and it’s all done with a palpable sense of good humour and affection. For sheer frisson and the widest possible colour spectrum the two-piano Symphonic Dances takes some beating. Vivid, variegated playing and a terrific recording make this the stand-out performance here.
At more than 80 minutes CD4 is very generous indeed. It contains the Opp. 23 and 32 Préludes plus the gothicky one in C sharp minor (Op. 3, No. 2). The latter is given with thrilling weight and burnished tone, while the 10 pieces of Op. 23 show Ashkenazy at his most nuanced and engaging. He’s one of those pianists who is thoughtful and meticulous yet he seldom sounds stiff or studied. There’s no striving for effect here, just full-blooded expositions of what the composer intended. One has to marvel at No. 2 in B flat, which has seldom leapt off the page with such authority and style.
Decca’s effortlessly detailed and naturally balanced recording – pretty good for the mid-1970s - makes this the very best disc in the box; indeed, it’s one of the finest solo piano recordings you’re likely to hear any time soon, whatever its provenance or vintage. This really is Desert Island fare, and this gripping account of Op. 32 will surely banish one’s craving for an early rescue. It’s muscle-flexing music, whose sheer breadth and confidence demands interpreters of similar skill and temperament. Needless to say Ashkenazy doesn’t disappoint, even in the composer’s more inward and melting moments, such as those of No. 5 in G.
The Corelli Variations that start CD5 merely confirm this pianist’s enviable control of touch and dynamic; cool and crystal clear but never stilted or sterile, the piece unfolds with all the ease and engagement one expects of a consummate artist. Not my favourite Rachmaninov by any means, but if I were to have just one version of these oft-coruscating variations it would probably be this one. Ashkenazy may have rivals in the Études-Tableaux, Op. 39 – Nikolai Lugansky comes to mind both here and in Op. 33 – but if you like bravura and brain Ashkenazy’s Op. 39 is as good as it gets. The same goes for his Op. 33, on CD7.
CD6 offers an all-conquering traversal of the Chopin Variations; this also happens to be one of the most recent recordings in the box. Firm-toned, spacious and tonally sophisticated this is how to record a solo piano. After such refulgence the Piano Sonata No. 1 may sound relatively dry; otherwise there’s weight and range aplenty. As so often with these discs I quite forgot I was listening to a CD at all; this is the kind of breath-bating pianism one associates with the concert hall, where all cares dissolve and only the music matters. Simply marvellous.
Ostensibly the second sonata – on CD7 – is given in the original version, although it seems Ashkenazy has introduced elements of the 1931 revision. It’s hardly a major issue; in any event it doesn’t cast the profound spell that makes Ashkenazy’s first sonata so memorable. Nevertheless it’s a strong performance that roves rather than rambles. Even at this stage in the review process one might be forgiven for feeling a bit jaded, but such is the quality of music-making and sound that all I wanted to do was press on. As I mentioned earlier Ashkenazy’s Op. 33 Études-Tableaux are every bit as accomplished as his Op. 39. Such nimble, penetrating and rhythmically alert playing can’t possibly fail to please.
Complete collections are apt to become ‘bitty’ towards the end as lesser pieces – sometimes fragments and posthumous offerings – are brought out and dusted off. We’re not yet there – well, not quite. CD7 contains the Russian Rhapsody, in which Ashkenazy and Previn rekindle the magic of their other collaborations. Ashkenazy’s decision to reprise the first suite, this time with his eldest son Vovka, may seem a little self-indulgent. Nevertheless, Ashkenazy père et fils turn in a perfectly pleasant, if somewhat featureless, reading of the piece.
CD8 has a few bits ‘n’ bobs, with the exception of a delightful set of the Six Moments musicaux and the very early Morceaux de Fantaisies. Ashkenazy brings a jewelled loveliness in the former, although the recording seems a little bright and shallow. Still, it’s not at all fierce. As for Vocalise, arranged by the pianist Zoltan Kocsis, it’s interesting if not entirely memorable. It certainly doesn’t approach the quality of the composer’s own arrangements and transcriptions that make CD9 so entertaining.
The secret of such things is to capture the style and spirit of the works in question. That’s the case here; the Bach is quick on its feet, the Schubert has admirable fluidity, Mendelssohn’s imperishable Scherzo is recreated with all necessary charm and fairy-like fibrillations, and the Bizet has a warm, sunny disposition. As expected Ashkenazy brings out all these elements with disarming ease. Of the Russian items Mussorgsky’s Hopak is perfectly fine, if rather narrowly recorded, as is Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumblebee. Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby is a little gruff perhaps, but its heart is definitely in the right place.
Still on disc nine the forgotten and frankly forgettable Franz Behr’s rather twee Lachtäuben, transcribed as Polka de W.R., is anything but that here; indeed, Ashkenazy gives it a giddy glow that’s utterly enchanting. The composer’s arrangements of two of his own songs, Lilacs and Daisies, and the two Kreisler items are pleasant enough; ditto the Six Pieces, Op. 11, played with Vovka. Ashkenazy’s younger son Dody joins them for the delirious little Waltz in A and trumpeter Alistair Mackie does the honours in the bright, rollicking Polka. As for The Star-Spangled Banner – aka the Anacreontic Song - it has all the fervour and focus one could wish. All very peripheral, I suppose, but still good fun.
The same could be said of the remaining discs. CD10 is a collection of orphans and off-cuts – the Morceaux de Salon is the most substantial work here – most of which are of passing interest only. In the interests of completeness the ‘bonus’ CD11 offers the following: a Corelli Variations from 1972-1973; an Op. 39, apparently recorded in two sessions as far apart as 1963 and 1973; and Daisies and Lilacs, taped in 1977 and 1978. The variations sound rather boxy, but once again Ashkenazy navigates the music with assurance and aplomb. The Études and song arrangements are similarly accomplished, even if the former are a tad blustery at times. Do any of these performances supplant the ones heard elsewhere? Emphatically not, these items are for completists and die-hard fans only.
Fifty years of great music-making, all in one box; a bargain at any price.
Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: Piano concertos
Detailed contents
CD 1 [79:48]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43*
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, *Philharmonia Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. 1984-1986
CD 2 [77:45]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. 1984-1985
CD 3 [79:30]
Suite No. 1 for two pianos, Op. 5
Suite No. 2 for two pianos, Op. 17
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (arr. for two pianos)
Vladimir Ashkenazy, André Previn (pianos)
rec. 1974-1979
CD 4 [80:34]
Prélude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2
Préludes, Op. 23
Préludes, Op. 32
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. 1974-1975
CD 5 [54:59]
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42
Études-Tableaux, Op. 39
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. 1985-1986
CD 6 [62:26]
Variations on a theme of Chopin
Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. 2010-2011
CD 7 [80:27]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 (original version, 1913)
Études-Tableaux, Op. 33
Russian Rhapsody for two pianos*
Romance in G
Suite No. 1 for two pianos, Op. 5 (Fantaisie-tableaux)**
*with André Previn
**with Vovka Ashkenazy
rec. 1977-2013
CD 8 [62:19]
Six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16
Morceaux de Fantasies, Op. 3
Prélude in D minor, Op. Posth.
How Beautiful It Is Here (Zdes' khorosho), Op. 21, No. 7 (tr. for piano)
Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (arr. Zoltán Kocsis)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. 2002-2004
CD 9 [78:43]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita for violin solo No. 3 in E, BWV 1006 (arr. Rachmaninov)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin, D.795 = Wohin? (tr. Rachmaninov)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61 - Scherzo (arr. Rachmaninov)
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
L'Arlésienne Suite No. 1 - Menuet (tr. Rachmaninov)
Modest Petrovich MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Sorochintsy Fair – Hopak (tr. Rachmaninov)
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Tale Of Tsar Saltan - The Flight of the Bumble-Bee (tr. Rachmaninov)
Peter Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Lullaby, Op.16, No. 1 (Kolybelnaya pyesyen) (tr. Rachmaninov)
Franz BEHR (1837-1898)
Lachtäuben (arr. Rachmaninov as ‘Polka de W.R.’)
Sergey Vasil'yevich RACHMANINOV
Siren (Lilacs), Op. 21, No. 5 (arr. composer)
Margaritki (Daisies), Op. 38, No. 3 (arr. composer)
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Liebesleid (arr. Rachmaninov)
Liebesfreud (arr. Rachmaninov)
Sergey Vasil'yevich RACHMANINOV
Six Pieces, Op.11*
Waltz in A (six hands)**
Romance in A (six hands)
Italian Polka (piano four hands & trumpet)***
John Stafford SMITH (1750-1836)
The Star-Spangled Banner (tr. Rachmaninov)
*Vladimir Ashkenazy, Vovka Ashkenazy
**Vladimir, Vovka & Dody Ashkenazy (piano)
***Vladimir & Vovka Ashkenazy (piano) Alistair Mackie (trumpet)
rec. 2000
CD 10 [76:30]
Piano Piece in A flat major
Morceaux de Salon, Op. 10
Three Nocturnes
Song without words (D minor)
Canon (E minor)
Fugue (D minor)
Four Pieces (originally Op. 1)
Prélude in F
Morceau de Fantaisie in G minor (‘Delmo’)
Fughetta in F
Oriental Sketch
The Night Is Mournful (Noch pechal'na), Op. 26, No. 12
Vespers (All-Night Vigil), Op. 37 - Nyne otpushchayeshi (Nunc dimittis) (arr. composer)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. 2012
CD 11 [76:03]
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42
Études-Tableaux, Op. 39
Siren (Lilacs), Op. 21, No. 5 (arr. composer)
Margaritki (Daisies), Op. 38, No. 3 (arr. composer)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. 1963-1978


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