WORKS: The Seasons
PERFORMER: Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 466 562-2
Anyone attempting to demonstrate Tchaikovsky’s greatness would probably not turn immediately to his solo piano output. It does, however, form a substantial corpus in which there are many fine miniatures, as well as the odd work that reveals glimmerings of a melodic genius at work. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s collection of solo piano pieces includes the best-known of Tchaikovsky’s essays in the genre, the cycle The Seasons, plus six short pieces, three belonging to a set of 18 Tchaikovsky wrote shortly before completing the Pathetique Symphony in the last year of his life. Ashkenazy is, as ever, a supremely well-mannered pianist. If he were an employee he would be endlessly receiving commendations for unblemished, loyal service, a career untainted by insurbordinate utterance or insurrectionary deed. His playing has delicacy and charm, communicated through an easy, fluid technique. If he has a flaw, it is his very lack of flaws: the absence of the sort of inspired grit that could in the right circumstances make a pearl.
One almost feels unreasonable demanding anything more from him when confronted with such a sustained exhibition of good taste. But a listen to his countryman Mikhail Pletnev shows what can be done with The Seasons. Even a small point such as Pletnev’s segue between August and September confirms what is lacking in Ashkenazy: surprise. Throughout Pletnev’s account there is a sense of life and vitality, and proof of the power of music to jolt and shock, that Ashkenazy’s renderings – although graceful and faithful – cannot quite approach. Christopher Wood