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GRAMOPHONE (08/2017)
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Decca 4832150  

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Reviewer: Harriet Smith

By the time you read this, Ashkenazy will have turned 80 – which seems almost unbelievable. He has been turning increasingly to Bach over the past few years and these recordings of the French Suites were made a year apart: Nos 1‑3 in April last year, No 4‑6 as recently as this March. His love for Bach’s music is not in doubt, for it shines through every dance in every suite. Speeds tend to be relatively swift, which means that the suites fit on to a single disc, unlike the superb recent set from Murray Perahia, 10 years Ashkenazy’s junior.

This is very much a set of two halves, for the 2016 performances sound less technically confident than those of this year. I admire the way Ashkenazy doesn’t let age stand in the way of tempos, but the result can be a tad uneven (the opening Allemande of the First Suite, the Courante of the Second) or effortful (the Gigues of Nos 1 and 3, or the Air of No 2). Given that Ashkenazy has never been one of the keyboard world’s great colourists, there is, unfortunately, nothing to distract the ear from these frailties.  

However, the second three suites fare far better. Ashkenazy launches into the Allemande of the E flat major Suite (No 4) with a quiet confidence, faster-paced than the daringly spacious Perahia, while the following Courante and Sarabande are by turns spirited and nicely flowing, contrasting with a pleasingly spiky Gavotte; for the concluding Gigue, too, Ashkenazy finds an infectious zest. In the Fifth Suite we get a real study in contrasts – the graceful opening movement, a Sarabande that unfolds very naturally and a Loure that has an appealing communing quality to it, set against the vigour of the Courante, Gavotte and Gigue. The Sixth is slightly less convincing, the Courante sounding a little breathless, lacking the finesse of Perahia’s phrasing, while there’s a certain weariness of finger in the Gigue; to the Sarabande, though, Ashkenazy brings a touching sense of nobility.

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