Ashkenazy, priceless on piano

March 12, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Vladimir Ashkenazy is now one of the world's best-known conductors and it is in that capacity that he has visited this country in recent years. But older listeners may be forgiven if they still remember this musician, now in his 60th year, as one of the greatest pianists of his generation.

It was with considerable expectation (and not a little trepidation), therefore, that one looked forward to Ashkenazy's piano recital -- his first in Washington in more than six years -- Saturday afternoon in Constitution Hall. The pianist's program consisted of music by Beethoven and Prokofiev, almost all of whose keyboard works he has (sometimes more than once) recorded. But was he going to be the Ashkenazy of old? Or was he going to be merely a shadow of what he was?

The answers came within seconds after Ashkenazy made his entrance in his familiar terrier-like trot from the wings: He is still one of our greatest pianists -- a poetic, thoughtful and fearless virtuoso for whom no passage is too difficult and no tempo too fast. Indeed, his performances of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Nos. 16 and 17 ("Tempest") suggested that his insights into this composer have deepened in the 15 years or so since he recorded all 32 of the sonatas.

Placing the two sonatas on the first half of the program, as Ashkenazy did, made for a fascinating juxtaposition. Although they share the same opus number, they could not be more different. The "Tempest" is a tragic work; its predecessor is one of Beethoven's most light-hearted pieces.

Ashkenazy captured the latter's whimsy with a touch that made the music bubble. The jocular ideas of the first movement were bold without being heavy; the second moved at a tempo that kept its ornate luxuriousness from sounding over-long; and the brilliant final rondo, which laughs at itself on its final page, was filled with wit without a trace of affectation.

In its quiet way, Ashkenazy's performance of the "Tempest" was just as good. His relative restraint in what is among Beethoven's most dramatic keyboard works may have surprised some listeners. But the composer remarked of the first movement, with its haunted introductory arpeggios that later give rise to a series of anguished declamations, that it should sound "like a voice from a tomb-vault." To have played too loudly would have torn the veil from the music's mystery, which Ashkenazy made more suspenseful still with his subtle pedaling.

The pianist's control and imagination were equally impressive in the wide, quasi-vocal leaps and eerie left-hand drum taps of the slow movement and in the obsessive ruminations of the final one, in which Ashkenazy's refusal to hurry honored Beethoven's "allegretto" marking.

After intermission, the pianist demonstrated his continuing mastery of the music of Prokofiev with affecting and delicately colored performances of "Romeo and Juliet before Parting" and "Masques" (from the composer's own transcription of excerpts from his ballet, "Romeo and Juliet").

While the performance of Prokofiev's titanic Sonata No. 8 was not always ideally controlled, Ashkenazy's energy and concentration were never less than compelling. The undiminished ferocity with which he attacked the final movement and the way in which he accelerated into its diabolical coda, concluding with a fearless leap off the precipice, brought back warm memories for at least one of the pianist's longtime fans.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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