There seem to be two classes of people in the world of music: those who praise Ashkenazy uncritically simply because he is the great Ashkenazy, and those who pan him critically for the very same reason.
I own quite a few recordings of Ashkenazy the pianist and Ashkenazy the conductor. He is never bad, always reliable, but can be sometimes rather matter-of-fact. Sometimes that sharp edge of high inspiration is somehow missing, even when the performances are quite satisfying technically and artistically.
The attraction of this recording for me was the 1st Piano Concerto. Having quite a few already of the 2nd, I wished to expand my collection of the 1st, while adding yet another 2nd (one cannot have too many!). There are in my judgment not many adequate recordings of Brahm's 1st Piano Concerto. Most pianists and conductors cannot seem to paint well with the dark, even drab colors that Brahms provides in this work; nor do they really capture its deep passion and angst. Ashkenazy and Haitink succeed brilliantly where most others fail. Here we have a dark but clear, emotional portrait. Ashkenazy beautifully voices those thick, dark chords and sustains the big line of the music. This is far and away the finest recording of the 1st that I know. Ah, just listen to the magic he works in the 2nd movement! The only thing that mars this performance in the least is one moment in the 1st movement where an out-of-tune horn clashes with the piano. I wonder why they didn't fix that.
With recordings of the 2nd, the competition is stiffer; there are numerous worthy efforts. This is my very favorite piece of music, so the performance has to be pretty bad for me to hate it. I have many I enjoy and a few I love, notably, Richter's "romantic" version and the straightforward, "classical" rendition of Backhaus. I expected to be satisfied with Ashkenazy's always-reliable playing, his solid musicianship, his beautiful sonorities. Instead I was blown away! This is one of those times when the pianist is really one with the music, when he drinks deeply of it and lets it have its way. He lets forth with all the pathos, humor, drama, and tenderness that this work means to offer the listener.
In both concertos, everything is enhanced mightily by the uncanny rapport between Ashkenazy and Haitink. The conductor appreciates both these works for what they really are: symphonies with piano obligato. He does not merely accompany the soloist, but interacts with him. Whether the orchestral force is the Concertgegouw (in the 1st) or the Vienna Philharmonic (in the 2nd), pianist and orchestra seem to be one unit working together, rather than opposing forces fighting each other. Such is required in this music.
If these superb performances of the concertos weren't enough, we also have Ashkenazy conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in the "Handel" and "Haydn" Variations--also fine renditions. It's more music than you sometimes get in a two-disc set of the Brahms Concertos. (I have one by Barenboim which has in addition only the Haydn Variations.)
The whole effort is greatly aided by the excellent sonics. The concertos were recorded in the early '80s, the orchestral works some ten years later, all in digital sound. You won't find much better sound quality today, and a whole lot worse.
Add to fabulous performances and generous poritions a bargain price ...