JS Bach’s French Suites performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: French Suites Nos 1-6, BWV 812-817
PERFORMER: Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 483 2150

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Vladimir Ashkenazy’s late fascination with Bach has led him to make several recordings of the German composer’s work in the last decade: The Well-Tempered Clavier in 2006, the Partitas in 2010, the Italian Concerto and French Overture (2014), and now the French Suites, released to celebrate his 80th birthday in July. This series of fine performances places him among the ‘mighty handful’ of Russian Bach pianists alongside Samuil Feinberg, Leonid Nikolayev, Sviatoslav Richter and Grigory Sokolov.

Bach’s French Suites, mostly composed between 1722-25, scale the expressive gamut and Ashkenazy responds with playing that ranges from exuberant to introspective. A hint of melancholy underlies these autumnal performances – a quality which suits the minor-mode works particularly well – and though he’s at his best in the fluid Allemandes and ruminative Sarabandes, he can lighten the tone and quicken the pace where necessary.

Some of sprightlier dances sound a little stiff – the D minor Gigue and G major Bourrée are shod with heavy boots, and the E flat Menuet plods rather – and there are occasional inconsistencies in tempo, perhaps a result of the editing process. Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy here: articulation is scrupulously clean and the contrapuntal textures are never muddied, despite the piano’s natural resonance.

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Decca’s glossy recording is a shade too open and, as a result, it lacks a little in warmth. Kate BoltonPorciatti