That’s the thing about the dots on the page. When it comes to interpretation, they can never tell the full story. And certainly not when faced with decoding the elusive style that is the French Baroque. Little wonder then that while pianists have enthusiastically embraced Bach’s Italian Concerto, its sibling, the Gallic-style French Overture, has enjoyed fewer champions. Full marks then to Vladimir Ashkenazy in not ducking the challenge by recording Clavierübung II – the Italian Concerto and the French Overture – complete, and with the added bonus of the youthful Aria variata, and a Marcello concerto transcription.
Bravery alone, alas, does not a successful French Overture make. The fluid flamboyance of the opening is reduced to something stiff and awkward as Ashkenazy grapples with the idiom, not helped by a ponderous tempo that shuns Bach’s two-in-a-bar time signature. Ornaments can be a little laboriously negotiated, and the observance of all repeats is a mixed blessing given his disinclination to embellish. He’s careful not to make an over-expressive meal of the Sarabande, and the spiky Gigue is pertly pointed, but the tongue-in-cheek Echo sounds as if played through gritted teeth. András Schiff’s EuroArts DVD makes a much more convincing case for BWV 831 on the piano.
The Italianate Bach suits Ashkenazy better with a carefully-wrought account of the Aria variata topped by a forthright Italian Concerto. Its Andante is despatched with limpid detachment before a romping Presto with the finishing line ever in its sights.