on 19 December 2013
I am not the first reviewer of these CDs on Amazon, just the first on Amazon.co.uk.
I read the reviews and linked comments on Amazon.com with great interest, and have learned a certain amount (maybe sometimes about our shared human pretensions more than about Bach or Ashkenazy's playing of his music ...)
I have no qualification that would make me an authoritative commentator, just the "evidence" that a pair of perhaps averagely sharp ears can provide after much enjoyment of various performances of the great "48", both books, or, in the case of S.Richter Book 1 (live) only, and of Rosalyn Tureck Book 2 (BBC) only. So far, that is. Otherwise, I have got to know (and am continuing to get to know) versions by Edwin Fischer, Walter Gieseking, Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff (ECM) and Vladimir Ashkenazy, as well as downloading four or five of the pieces from the Daniel Barenboim recording.
I learned that there are so many different ways of playing this wonderful music and that (in the absence of detailed academic knowledge) it must surely often be misguided to fall into dogmatic pronouncements about "the right way" and "the wrong way" of playing Bach.
Does the music live and breathe, and does it sound as if it is going the way it was meant to go, with (as it were) phrases, sentences, paragraphs all understood and articulately expressed? Does it communicate on an emotional level? Does the performer phrase and voice convincingly, using a variety of touch and tone? Does he/she bring to each piece a "sense of the whole", building towards a peak and a resolution (where fitting)?
These are some of the questions to which I would want to be able to give the answer "Yes"; and I find I can mostly do so after listening to Ashkenazy's version. His approach is consistent, and you will find that a virtue if you only want to listen to, say, 3 or 4 preludes and fugues at a sitting. Consistency might seem to be less of a virtue if you wish to listen to a whole book at one stretch, and it might then sound more like "a rather restricted range of expression", but therein lies a central question: should the performer of Bach be aiming for a wide range of expression or not? And indeed: were these pieces designed to be listened to one after another in long sessions? Probably not. Ashkenazy is essentially forthright and straightforward in his approach to Bach, often favouring lively and brisk speeds in a refreshing way. There is an engagingly "sunny" quality and mood revealed in many of the pieces, with their beauty seemingly allowed to flower by itself and no sense of the performer's ego intruding. However, with brisk speeds, comes - I think almost inevitably - the fact that sometimes there is less detail and less differentiation than would be audible from players like, for example, Tureck or Schiff, who tend to choose slower tempi. Choice of speed is one among many choices that a performer reaches, and Ashkenazy's choices most often work extremely well for his style of playing. If you prefer a more measured approach, this set may not be for you, in spite of the "sunny" atmosphere mentioned above.
Ashkenazy has come in for quite a lot of praise and no small amount of bile in the other Amazon.com reviews and comments. Unless you have strong and unbending views about how Bach must be played, though, you will find much to enjoy in this very animated series of performances. I recommend (unsurprisingly and in no way originally), that, if you grow to love this music, or already do, you need several different versions of it to enjoy and compare.
I would not want to be without Tureck, Gould, Schiff and Richter, but nor do I think Ashkenazy is at all out of place in their company.