English Suites Nos 1-3
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Decca 485 2088 92:35 mins (2 discs)
As Jeremy Hayes observes in his liner note, Vladimir Ashkenazy left a 39-year gap between his first Bach recording – of the D minor Concerto – and his second, a celebrated recording of the 48. This gap, he told Hayes, was because he simply didn’t feel ready to approach Bach’s music ‘correctly’. This account of the first three English Suites rounds off a series of recordings he has made including the Partitas, the Italian Concerto and the French Suites, and it does so with Ashkenazy’s customary authority.
The style of Bach’s earliest keyboard suite is an amalgam of the refined French and virtuoso Italian styles, and its title is a mystery; the only clue is a note by a relative or pupil of Bach, ‘Fait pour les Anglois’.
Taking off into the heavens with a notably muscular account of the opening Prelude, Ashkenazy gives a performance with nothing mannered in its unvarnished expressiveness; every note in every piece of ornamentation comes over with lapidary clarity. The dances have a fleet brilliance, and the emotion of the Sarabandes is reined in with no hint of heart-on-sleeve. The contrast between the Gavotte and Musette in the third suite is deftly done; the crazy inversion of that suite’s Gigue is bracingly exuberant.
By juxtaposing Ashkenazy’s 1965 recording of the D minor concerto, this recording allows a then-and-now comparison, and the good news is that his playing has kept all its directness, poise and wit. As he turns the Adagio into a long and unbroken line of rapt beauty, you sense his thrilled delight in this exploration of something which feels like terra incognita.