Ashkenazy makes excellence ordinary

March 27, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

It's easy to take Vladimir Ashkenazy for granted. His mainstream interpretations are generally straight-forward, and he has never courted publicity. Unlike many other celebrated musicians, he has never been embroiled in artistic or personal controversy. His constant companion is his Icelandic wife of 34 years, Dody; when his six children were young, they always traveled with him. And he's been around so long that one sometimes forgets he's there. He made the first of hundreds of records almost 40 years ago. It comes as a shock to realize that he's only 56.

His seeming ordinariness makes this pianist-conductor all the more extraordinary. Take his most recent releases for Decca-London, Ashkenazy's primary recording company since 1963. They include Brahms Symphony No. 2; Sibelius' Symphony No. 2; an all-Alban Berg disc; a disc of Stravinsky rarities; and, as a pianist, an album of Chopin that combines the Sonata No. 3 in B minor with the opus 28 Preludes. It's hard to think of many other conductors with such broad sympathies. But Ashkenazy's prolific conducting activities wouldn't matter were it not for their quality. The least of these recent recordings is good, and the best are among the finest available.

And it's impossible to think of another pianist-turned-conductor in the history of music who continues to play the piano so brilliantly. There are conductors who still play in public, notably Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony, and Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the Houston Symphony. But Barenboim's performances tend to be embarrassing, and Eschenbach, who still plays well, has drastically reduced his repertory and his appearances. Although Ashkenazy plays the piano less than he did 20 years ago, his repertory is still enormous and he remains among the great virtuosos.

* His fantastic energy is coupled with a rare capacity for growth. Compare his new recording of the Sibelius Second Symphony (Decca-London 436 566-2) with the Boston Symphony to that of about 15 years ago with the Philharmonia Orchestra. The old one was good -- though it was the weakest performance in the old set; the new one is terrific.

The improvement can be gauged most dramatically by the difference in the the last movement, a major test of a conductor's ability, because the symphony's sweeping bardic theme simply makes all but the best musicians lose their heads.

In the old performance, Ashkenazy fell victim to the temptation to rush in the coda, letting the orchestra play too loudly too soon. The new performance shows that he now knows that less can be more. He builds the finale with a sureness of instinct, letting the tension inexorably accumulate to a superbly judged peroration. The performance also shows another kind of growth; for all its expressive warmth, the old performance suggested Tchaikovsky; the new Sibelius Second has the chillier atmosphere appropriate to a Scandinavian composer.

* The Stravinsky disc (Decca-London 440 229-2) is also superb. Olli Mustonen is a brilliant soloist in the Concerto for Piano and Winds and in the less familiar Capriccio and Movements for Piano and Orchestra. The performance of the concerto is dramatic, that of the capriccio revels in allusions to early jazz, and the fearsomely complex movements are compelling. The "Ebony" Concerto is pure delight. This peculiar work can be called "neo-classicism meets big band." Stravinsky recorded the piece with Benny Goodman, but this version with Ashkenazy's clarinetist son, Dimitri, has more swing and better recorded sound.

* The Berg disc (Decca-London 436 567-2), which features the "Seven Early Songs" and "Five Altenburg Songs" with soprano Brigitte Balleys, the Lyric Suite in its string orchestra arrangement and the Three Pieces for Orchestra (opus 6), is well done. But other conductors -- notably Claudio Abbado on a mid-priced Deutsche Grammophon disc -- have made a more powerful impression in the Mahler-drenched atmosphere of the Three Pieces.

* Ashkenazy and the Cleveland Orchestra are not quite as persuasive in Brahms' Second Symphony (Decca-London 433 549-2) as they were in last year's heroic version of the Symphony No. 1. But this Brahms Second is still good, and it has more personality than that of the Cleveland with music director Christoph von Dohnanyi.

* Although there are some listeners who may find the Chopin recordings of the middle-aged Ashkenazy wanting in comparison those he made as a young man, these new performances of the B Minor Sonata and the Preludes (Decca-London 436 821-2) are wonderful.

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