It's hard to imagine too many other musicians with as varied a career and as diverse a set of repertoire as pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Nonetheless, the Moscow Conservatory graduate still has his feet firmly planted in his Russian heritage, this new recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier on longtime partner Decca being no exception. Although Ashkenazy's amazing virtuosity as a performer is no secret, the music of Bach demands much more than that alone. Bach requires thought, intellect, and a different type of spirit -- three areas in which Ashkenazy often excels. Make that four, if you account for his outstanding technical mastery.
Here, though, Ashkenazy faces perhaps his toughest audience and critics yet; the very first prelude alone is played (and heard) a countless amount of times each week in a living room somewhere in the world! Nevertheless, this set, spanned economically across three compact discs, begins impressively enough. Ashkenazy commands a great sensitivity in the very first prelude, where he connects Bach's musical lines and ideas together in a way somewhat reminiscent of his recordings of Chopin or Rachmaninov -- though not in the same grandiose manner. Rather, what Ashkenazy does, quite successfully, is to complement this romanticism with the music's natural elegance and grace. Ashkenazy's skill at maintaining a sensitive lyricism without stretching the tempo is also insightful.
While many of the preludes (and some of the fugues) are magnificently played, much of Ashkenazy's performance throughout this set does seem to exude a tinge of dryness and the monochromatic. This is especially audible in the fugues, which, lacking the lyrical treatment afforded to the preludes, results in a feeling that is more vertical, angular, and boxlike (all difficulties inherent in the performance, especially today, of these works). There is often a shallow neglect to the ends of phrases, as well, resulting in a feeling of hollowness. Ashkenazy's ornaments, at times, can sound a bit lethargic; the trills and grace notes could use more vibrance and life.
Overall, these three discs represent a somewhat mixed bag of quality; you'll hear some genuinely brilliant moments coupled with many that seem disappointing. If you are looking for a Well-Tempered Clavier set in the Russian tradition and are not bothered by sound quality, you may find the Sviatoslav Richter performance from 1970, released on RCA, somewhat more satisfying.