Since he turned his attention from piano playing to conducting, Ashkenazy has stayed away from the recording studio for some time, but in the last years he seems to be picking up his old career again. A good decision, as he never equalled his keyboard success with his baton. He finally set to recording the complete Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, a huge undertaking, as he says himself in the liner notes: "You have to devote so much time and energy and concentration!" That he eventually took the effort is something that deserves only applauds, as this is an absolutely superior recording of this 20th century masterwork. Compared to Ashkenazy's earlier recordings (those of the Rachmaninov Preludes, for example) he hasn't lost anything of his old musical feeling and sensitivity. What is gone a little is the energy and risk-taking he used to expose. But then, this set of Preludes and Fugues doesn't ask for so much virtuosity as it does for musicality. Because of that, Ashkenazy's approach does full right to the work. Even more so than the famous Nikolayeva (that is, in her 1990 Hyperion recordings; I don't know her 1987 set), as the famous dedicatee of this work plays much too slowly and heavy for my taste.
If anything distincts Ashkenazy's recordings so much, it's the vitality and relaxedness he plays with. His approach is quite 'clean': he doesn't impart much romanticism or overwrought feelings, and this is something I admire greatly: Ashkenazy makes everything sound very direct and intimate. And above all: everything is so 'naturally good' (an ability he has always had). He focuses rather on the work's musical side than its emotionality, and does this very successfully. These preludes and fugues are mainly a great thematic and musical traversal, as another reviewer rightfully commented, after the example of Bach, and hearing Ashkenazy makes me wish he would record some Bach too (the WTC maybe?). Most of his preludes sing beautifully, while the voicing in the fugues is very clear and architectural. I've heard comments that he is just too clean at everything, or that he sounds bored; this is definitely not the case. I'd rather say that he often reaches some kind of a transcendence in which his own person doesn't count much anymore. Many fugues in particular have very meditative qualities and it's absolutely wonderful to hear how much Ashkenazy unifies his mind with the music at those places. I have to say that Richter does this even better in the few preludes and fugues that he recorded, but Ashkenazy is a very close second after all.
Most of the 48 works on these discs are simply immensely enjoyable to listen, just because of Ashkenazy's greatly clear and communicative approach. When comparing Ashkenazy and Nikolayeva, I noticed something interesting: the latter usually plays slower and less interesting, but even when Ashkenazy plays slower than Nikolayeva he sounds far more expressive. Additionally, he's often much more at ease. The truly wonderful B flat minor fugue is a good example: he takes more than seven minutes for this piece, but has you hanging to the speakers every single second. I've always thought he has some natural talent for playing anything beautifully and easily and that's surely the case here too. On the other hand: in the more lively pieces, like the A flat major, B major or G major fugues, he gives much fresher and more vital accounts than Nikolayeva who's just too heavy for the faster works. His light touch is generally wonderful, though on a few occasions I'd like some more dynamic differences: in the concluding D minor fugue the end is a bit too understated for me, for example. On the whole, Ashkenazy seems to fully get the clue of all of these pieces and performs them masterfully.
Overall, a great set that makes more obvious than ever how good this music really is. This is a set that just can't make me stop listening. Ashkenazy's lucidity and transcendence is really wonderful for almost every of these 48 pieces and sets the absolute standard for this work so far. Only Sviatoslav Richter surpassed it at times but unfortunately he didn't record all 24 Preludes and Fugues. This one is fully worth its place on my shelves aside Richter's Well-Tempered Clavier. I hope Shostakovich' Preludes and Fugues will get more attention among other pianists in the coming time, though they will have a very hard job in beating these interpretations.