When the widely heralded Soviet virtuoso Vladimir Ashkenazy arrived in Washington for his American debut in 1958 at age 21, he played Chopin -- brilliantly, by all accounts. Since then the now-Soviet e'migre' has turned out to be one of those rare musical figures who are actually surpassing their initial promise. He plays much of the standard piano repertory, and there is also his impressive new career on the podium.
It was reassuring, and enormously satisfying, though, to return to that marvelous Ashkenazy Chopin at his standing-room-only concert Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. Chopin took up the entire second half -- with Rachmaninoff preceding it -- in Ashkenazy's first solo recital here in almost five years.
The Chopin group opened with a masterpiece of Romanticism, the F Minor Ballade. It is one of Chopin's later works, and by then he had mastered all those miracles of poetry that make his greatest work, paradoxically, both economical and free.
Ashkenazy approached the Ballade in his usual manner -- straightforward, but never even remotely simplistic. His transition, for instance, between that haunting wisp of a soft introduction, with its three-note figures, and the unexpected waltz-like theme to come -- a notoriously tricky passage -- was neither exaggerated nor perfunctory. Likewise, the heavily contrapuntal sections were magnificent, but not at the cost of the lyric line that they are meant to support rather than overwhelm. And so the performance went, through the ballade's 12-minute course to the crack of doom on which it ends.
If anything, the Nocturne that followed (in C Minor, Op. 42, No. 1) was even finer. From the first elusive notes, where far reaches of bass and treble alternate in careful balance, it was clearly a performance of exceptional steadiness, building with assurance to a shattering conclusion. Then followed authoritative versions of the C Minor Nocturne's companion work in F-sharp Minor, of the Third Impromptu and of the blazing C-sharp Minor Scherzo.
Ashkenazy's technique is awesome. Every work on the program was difficult, and most of them extremely difficult, but he never seemed to tire, and his concentration never waned. If there is such a thing as an Ashkenazy style, it lies in considerable part in avoidance of displaying his digital prowess ostentatiously.
Rachmaninoff's daunting Variations on a Theme by Corelli opened the program. With its stark juxtapositions of texture, harmony and rhythm, the work was a sort of dry run for the Paganini Rhapsody -- not quite so beautiful, perhaps, but the ideas are there. And it deserves the kind of herculean effort that Ashkenazy lavished on it, and on six of Rachmaninoff's Op. 39 Etudes-Tableaux as well as the delectably played encore, Rachmaninoff's famed G Minor Prelude.