Russian émigré Vladimir Ashkenazy is one of the leading names in classical music. After achieving international acclaim as a virtuoso pianist, he forged a second career as a conductor leading some of the world’s top orchestras. Ashkenazy’s reputation soared after an award-winning international debut in Belgium in 1956 at the age of 18, and he built his career as a pianist on an extensive repertoire that includes the sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven, and twentieth century Russian composers. As a conductor, he has worked to bring the work of lesser-known modern Russian composers to a wider audience. “Ashkenazy has everything: instinct, intelligence, technique, conviction, curiosity, self-possession, self-doubt, an active sense of humour, and a dead-serious attitude toward his work,” asserted Atlantic critic Harvey Sachs in 1990.
Ashkenazy was born into a half-Jewish family in the Russian city of Gorky in 1937, at the height of authoritarian repression in the Soviet Union under Communist leader Josef Stalin. His father was a professional pianist for a state entertainment agency, and earned a comfortable living by the Soviet standards of the day. Ashkenazy’s early life was marked by a series of moves and, at times, severe hardship because of World War II. But at the height of the conflict, at the age of six, he began taking lessons on the upright piano in the family’s communal apartment in Moscow. After his music teacher explained how to read music, Ashkenazy caught on quickly, and was soon sight-reading music. “I learned so fast once I had started that it seemed as though it was something I already carried inside me and knew how to do without needing to be taught,” Ashkenazy recalled in his 1985 autobiography written with Jasper Parrott titled Ashkenazy: Beyond Frontiers.
At the age of seven, Ashkenazy enrolled in the Moscow Central School of Music, which served as the junior school for the Moscow Conservatory. He studied under Anaida Sumbatyan, an Armenian woman and well-known pianist in her day who had only recently started teaching. After ten years with Sumbatyan, he entered Lev Obor’s piano class at the Conservatory in 1955, and that same year traveled to Warsaw for the International Chopin Competition, where he took second prize. In 1956, he left the Soviet Block for the first time to compete in the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium International Competition in Brussels. There, he won the gold medal, and along with it a great deal of international press attention that hailed him as the newest classical prodigy to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain. He received a number of invitations to perform abroad, and his parents were rewarded with a luxurious two-room apartment in Moscow, where he lived as well. Because of the privileges he was given, however, he was also asked to spy on his fellow students at the Conservatory.
Born Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy on July 6, 1937, in Gorky, U.S.S.R. (now Nizhni Novgorod, Commonwealth of Independent States); son of David and Evstolia (Plotnova) Ashkenazy; married Thorunn Johannsdottir, 1961; children: Vladimir Stefan, Nadia Liza, Dmitri Thor, Sonia Edda, Alexandra Inga. Education: Attended Central Music School, Moscow, and Moscow Conservatory; studied with Anaida Sumbatyan and Lev Obor.
Made concert debut in London, England, with London Symphony Orchestra, under George Hurst; solo recital at Festival Hall, 1963; music director, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London, 1987-94; chief conductor, Berlin Radio Orchestra (renamed German Symphony Orchestra in 1994), Berlin, Germany, 1989-2000; chief conductor, Prague Philharmonic Orchestra; principal guest conductor, Cleveland Orchestra, 1997—; autobiography, Ashkenazy: Beyond Frontiers, published by Atheneum, 1985.
Awards: Second Prize, International Chopin Competition, 1955; Gold Medal, Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition, Brussels, Belgium, 1956; co-winner, Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Moscow, 1962; Grammy Awards include: Best Classical Performance Instrumental Soloist Or Soloists (With Orchestra) for Beethoven: Concerti (5) For Piano And Orchestra, 1973; Best Chamber Music Performance (with Itzhak Perlman) for Beethoven: Sonatas for Violin and Piano (complete), 1978; Best Chamber Music Performance (with Perlman and Lynn Harrell) for Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A Minor, 1981; Best Classical Performance— Instrumental soloist or soloists for Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit, Pavane pour une Infante Defunte, Valses No-bleset Sentimentales, 1985; Best Chamber Music Performance (with Perlman and Lynn Harrell) for Beethoven: The Complete Piano Trios, 1987; Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (Without Orchestra) for Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, 1999.
Addresses: Home —Kaeppelistr. 15, 6045 Meggen, Switzerland. Management —Harrison/Parrott Ltd, 12 Penzance Place, London Wll 4PA, England.
In the fall of 1958, Ashkenazy toured several United States and Canadian cities in an arrangement with concert impresario Sol Hurok, and the foreign critics wrote effusively of talents. In 1959, he met a 19-year-old pianist from London, born of an Icelandic family, at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. A year later, Thorunn (Dody) Johannsdottir moved to Moscow to study at the Conservatory, and the two began dating despite the pressure Ashkenazy—a celebrity in the Soviet Union—received from authorities for dating a foreigner. Johannsdottir told him that she was willing to live in Soviet Union, and the two were married in 1961. She was even forced to relinquish her Icelandic citizenship, and when their first child was born, had to apply for a travel visa to visit her parents in London with Vladimir Jr., who was called Vovka. It took five months to obtain permission, and after Ashkenazy shared first prize in the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition, they began to consider moving abroad permanently.
In 1962, Ashkenazy made another concert tour of the United States. In 1987, Nation critic Edward W. Said recalled one of the engagements and his impression of the young Russian. “Phenomenally gifted and wonderfully natural and instinctive in his playing, he seemed incapable of an ugly or awkward performance of the pieces he chose.” The year concluded with a Christmas visit with his in-laws in London, and the family returned to Moscow on the second day of the new year. “I felt terribly low, as though prison gates were closing behind us,” he wrote in Beyond Frontiers. With his earnings from the tour, Ashkenazy bought his own Steinway grand piano for the apartment he and Dody had finally been given. When he was scheduled to play in England in March of 1963, he asked for a visa for both Dody and Vovka, so that they could again visit family in London. While there, he and Dody made contact with the officials of the British Foreign office, who stamped residency permits in their passports. They did not apply for political asylum, as reported in the press at the time. Husband and wife returned to Moscow one final time, where authorities promised him an open travel visa and gave him a car, but he flew to London on July 2, 1963. His last Moscow recital, a performance of Beethoven and Chopin piano works on June 9, 1963, was recorded. “His playing on this occasion has tremendous vitality and energy,” wrote Donald Manildi in American Record Guide.
Ashkenazy settled in London and embarked upon a busy schedule of performing and studio sessions for his new label, Decca. At the time, the city was a flourishing center of classical music, with five symphony orchestras and many European exiles making their home there. Among them were other young performers like Daniel Barenboim, his wife Jacqueline Du Pré, Zubin Mehta, and Itzhak Perlman. They often played or recorded together, but the pace took its toll, and Ashkenazy and his growing family decided to move to Iceland for more quietude in 1968. He became a citizen of Iceland in 1972. Ashkenazy still continued to travel through Europe frequently for concert engagements and recording sessions.
Ashkenazy’s recording career as a pianist has won him several Grammy Awards. “Because his creativity is tempered by self-discipline, he plays most of the works in his repertoire not just coherent but also convincingly and illuminatingly,” wrote Sachs in the Atlantic. He has made a complete recording of all Mozart and Beethoven piano concerti, and has performed the entirety of piano concerti from Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, and Prokofiev for posterity. With violinist Itzhak Perlman he has recorded all of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano. He has also recorded the complete solo works of Schumann and several classics of chamber music. Critics consider his mid-1960s interpretations of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, Sonata and Schumann’s Fantasy as some of his most brilliant work. “The Hammerklavier recording, in particular, revealed an artist who could play Beethoven with as strong a grasp of structure and with as much conviction as the celebrated Beethovinian Artur Schnabel had brought to the same music,” wrote Sachs, “but who, unlike Schnabel, also had impeccable technique and an extraordinary ear for tone color.”
Hearkening back to his first major international competition, Ashkenazy has also demonstrated a particular luminosity for interpreting Chopin’s solo piano works, and has recorded the entirety of them. “In his recording of Chopin’s Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 28, for instance, Ashkenazy makes the piano produce just about every kind of sound one could wish to hear it produce for nineteenth-century music, from the lugu-briousness of No. 2 (A minor)… to the terrifying violence of No. 22 (G minor),” declared Sachs. “When we arrive at the doom-laden low Ds that end the last prelude (D minor), we feel wrung out—and so we should. By using so many techniques so ingeniously, Ashkenazy has revealed not just the individual virtues of each prelude but the cumulative impact of the set.”
As a thanks to his adopted country, Ashkenazy began to donate some of his time to Iceland’s biennial music festival. Soon the Reykjavik Festival was attracting some of the biggest names in music for its concert series, including Andre Previn, Birgit Nilsson, Yehudi Menuhin, and Mstislav Rostropovich. Ashkenazy also began his conducting career in Iceland in 1970 when he took a guest spot with the country’s national Symphony Orchestra. His conducting career began to gain
momentum, and he accepted invitations to conduct with Liverpool and Stockholm orchestras in the mid-1970s, and began also taking occasional jobs with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1987, he became its music director, a post in which he served for seven years. In 1989, he was offered the same post with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, which became the German Symphony Orchestra in 1994. For a number of years he has been involved with the Cleveland Orchestra as its principal guest conductor, and by 1999 was conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Iceland had eventually proven impractical for travel purposes, and so the Ashkenazys, now a family of seven, settled in Luzern, Switzerland in 1978, though Ashkenazy remained a citizen of Iceland.
Not all critical assessments of Ashkenazy’s foray into conducting have been favorable. A 1987 recital at Carnegie Hall, in which Ashkenazy conducted the Royal Philharmonic’s performance of Berlioz’s Corsaire Overture, was faulted by Said in the Nation. “There seemed no previously designed balance in the sound, a fault to be attributed exclusively to the conductor: in his enthusiasm to have the orchestra playing at its most acute, Ashkenazy had simply forced every mass in it to the front, so that strings, brasses and winds seemed to be clamoring for attention all at once,” declared Said. “In the absence of either a principle of subordination or a sense of drama, the orchestra seemed both eager and lost.”
Ashkenazy’s ties to his native Russia remain strong. He is involved with the Rachmaninoff Society, and throughout his career has been closely associated with the works of this Russian composer, both as a pianist and as a conductor. He considers Sergei Rachmaninoff a quintessential Russian artist, though he, too, was a lifelong exile after the Russian Revolution of 1917. As Ashkenazy told Geoffrey Norris in the United Kingdom’s Telegraph, he hears in his music “a strong sense of fatalism, which is prevalent in almost all Russian expression.” Ashkenazy also discerned “that dark earth quality—chernozyom —that savage, dark quality you get very much in Mussorgsky, a little bit in Prokofiev, too.” In a review of a Royal Philharmonic performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the last work written for the orchestra before the composer’s death in 1943, Norris noted that “if Rach-maninov (sic) is not always given proper recognition for the strength and distinctive character of his orchestration, Ashkenazy was set on showing it in its true colours.“As he told the journalist, Rachmaninoff’s music had long been vital to him. “As Russians, it’s part of our heritage,” he said in the Telegraph. “As a student, I was infatuated with Rachmaninov. He was one of the most important Russian composers that we were exposed to and had to play. My affection for Rachmaninov has never ceased. His music takes me by the throat and heart.”
The works of another Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, also intrigue Ashkenazy. Shostakovich, who died in 1975, spent all of this life in the Soviet Union, and was one of the regime’s most celebrated artists. He wrote piano concertos, string quartets, works for the stage, and a famous Ninth Symphony in 1945, at the close of World War II. Of his lesser known symphonies, some are considered overtly patriotic and are rarely performed or even recorded any longer, but Ashkenazy has recorded several of them with the Royal Philharmonic. Symphony No. 2, which dates from 1927 and was commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, was reviewed by Paul Cook in the American Record Guide. “Ashkenazy manages to convert this highly programmatic work … into an eerie, atmospheric divertissement,” the critic declared.
Ashkenazy has also tried to bring attention to the work of a forgotten Russian composer, Scriabin, who wrote avant-garde works before his death in 1915. A modern composer, Alexander Nemtin, spent a quarter-century creating a 50-minute piece, Humanity, from Scriabin’s notes. Ashkenazy conducted the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for Humanity’s American premier in 1999. “It is a score that rages with the seething energy, colors, and yearning harmonies that remind one of other Scriabin works, especially Poem of Ecstasy,” stated Marilyn Tucker for American Record Guide. But Tucker also noted that the work was inaccessible for many. “Humanity despite many grand and yearning moments, is a real puzzler.”
Ashkenazy ended his association with the German Symphony Orchestra in 2000 in order to devote more time to other posts. He serves as an advisor to the Rachmaninoff Festival in London. On six occasions have his recordings been honored with a Grammy award, including one in 1999 in the category of best instrumental soloist performance (without orchestra) for his Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues.
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Favourite Rachmaninoff, André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra, 1992.
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The Piano Works (13 CDs), 1995.
24 Préludes/Piano Sonata No. 2, 1995.
Piano Concertos Nos. 1-4, André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra, 1995.
Eine Alpensinfonie/Don Juan/Salome’s Dance, Cleveland Orchestra, 1996.
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Symphony No.7/Shostakovich broadcasts from besieged Leningrad, St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, 1997.
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An internationally recognized solo pianist, chamber music performer, and concert conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy (born 1937) has made music with some of the most prestigious orchestras and soloists. In addition, he has recorded a large storehouse of classical and romantic works. His virtuoso recordings have earned him five Grammy awards plus Iceland's Order of the Falcon.
Born to Evstolia Plotnova and David Ashkenazy in Gorky (now Nizhni Novgorod), Russia, on July 6, 1937, Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy showed talent early in his childhood. He attended Moscow's Central Music School and the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Anaida Sumbatyan and Lev Oborin. In his late teens, he won second place in an international Chopin piano competition in Warsaw, Poland. In 1956, he won first prize in the Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition in Brussels, Belgium. At the age of 23, Ashkenazy married Icelandic pianist and fellow student Thorunn Johannsdottir, who became his travel manager and the mother of their five children—Vladimir Stefan, Nadia Liza, Dmitri Thor, Sonia Edda, and Alexandra Inga.
From Russia to the World
Beginning his musical career at the keyboard, Ashkenazy clenched his place as a master musician by winning the 1962 Tchaikovsky international piano competition. According to his KGB [Soviet secret police] companion, travel ignited Ashkenazy's enthusiasm for freedom in the West. He debuted in concert with the London Symphony Orchestra and performed a recital at London's Festival Hall in 1963, the year he parted permanently with his homeland.
The break was not without trauma. In an interview with John Stratford and John Riley in October 1991, Ashkenazy reflected on the miseries of living under Communist mind control. He spoke of the constant brainwashing, which forced people into madness. Under a nightmarish regime, he recalled how easily some citizens became disoriented and retreated into psychotic states.
Ashkenazy left all that behind, settled in Iceland in 1973, and refused to teach his children Russian. It was in the 1970s that he began directing his efforts away from piano toward conducting. He performed with the best—the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, and Concertgebouw Orchestra—and toured the United States, South America, China, Japan, and Australia.
Recalled the Past
In 1985, with the aid of Jasper Parrott, his British manager and close friend, Ashkenazy published a straightforward autobiography, Ashkenazy: Beyond Frontiers. The text covers his childhood and musical training at special schools, where the talented children of Russia's elite were prepared for competition against foreign musicians. He describes the privileges that the top performers earned for themselves by winning contests and denounces state suppression of individuality, spirituality, and self-knowledge. Critic Peter G. Davis of the New York Times Book Review compared Ashkenazy's revelations to similarly painful memories expressed by other artists fleeing to the West from Soviet regimentation.
In a distinguished, post-Russian musical career, Ashkenazy has earned a reputation for accuracy, dynamism, and silken phrasing. He has teamed with such star performers as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Lynn Harrell, Elisabeth Soederstroem, Barbara Bonney, and Matthias Goerne. In 1987, Ashkenazy began a long and profitable alliance as conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He has served as guest conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra, and, since 1989, as chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Orchestra.
Of Ashkenazy's lengthy discography and excellent public performances, reviewers tend to choose lavish descriptives—natural, poetic, opulent, tonally rich, energetic, and virtuoso. Later critiques noted that the competent, passionate young pianist gave place to a serious conductor who slacks when he returns to the keyboard for a solo concert. In September 2000, American Record Guide critic John Beversluis hesitantly suggested that Ashkenazy has lost interest in piano and charged that his lackluster performances sound routine, detached, and mechanical.
Absorbed in Music
While serving as music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, conductor laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and honorary chairman of the Greater Princeton Steinway Society, Ashkenazy makes his home in Meggan, Switzerland. His residence is separate from the studio, which he can reach in bad weather by a ten-meter tunnel. He owns two pianos—a Steinway and a Bosendorfer—and a library containing thousands of CDs. For performances, his wife buys polo shirts in London, which he wears with custom-made suits from Switzerland. His wooden batons come from Amsterdam. He remains attuned to his work and considers conducting and piano practice a strenuous form of physical exercise.
In his mid-sixties, Ashkenazy credited his wife Thorunn with simplifying his life by traveling with him and helping with minor difficulties, like removing a splinter when he jabbed a baton into his hand. During air travel, he uses quiet time for studying scores rather than reading novels. He depends on dinner after a late concert and sometimes stays up after midnight for post-performance receptions with fans, foreign dignitaries, and royalty. At night, he hears music in his dreams. When he has time alone with his family, he enjoys reading nonfiction about the Cold War era, watching the news, and eating simple meals cooked by his wife and her sister, who is the family housekeeper. On vacation in Greece or Turkey, he follows a daily regimen of swimming, boating, or walking.
In speaking of his career, Ashkenazy hesitates to explain why he chose music or why music so consumes his life. In a June 2000 interview with journalist Michael Green of Swiss News, Ashkenazy described his interests as just music rather than solo piano, chamber music, or orchestral conducting. Modestly, he explained, "Naturally, I understand what it means to play an instrument, what it takes to produce the sound, but I'm not exceptional."
Ashkenazy characterized the approach of the instrumentalist-conductor as different from that of the conductor who has never performed, either solo or with a symphony. He surmised that the conductor who is also an instrumentalist has more empathy for symphony members. He supplied examples of his patient efforts to make individual players feel comfortable and relaxed. In estimating the future of music, however, he warned that there are more talented young musicians than the market demands.
In a critique for American Record Guide of Ashkenazy's 2001 recording of Mozart's piano concertos, music analyst Thomas McClain characterized the man in multiple disciplines: "Ashkenazy relishes the roles of pianist and conductor, and to his credit he fills both roles quite well." Comparing him to Bruno Walter, Jose Iturbi, and Mozart himself, McClain added that "Ashkenazy has the excellent musicians of the Philharmonia to work with, so he has a built-in advantage" for producing a sound that is "big, bold, and lively."
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Ashkenazy, Vladimir (Davidovich)
Ashkenazy, Vladimir (Davidovich)
Ashkenazy, Vladimir (Davidovich), greatly gifted Russian pianist and conductor; b. Gorki, July 6, 1937. He became a student of Anaida Sumbatian at the Central Music School in Moscow in 1945, and in 1955 of Lev Oborin at the Moscow Cons., from which he graduated in 1963. In 1955 he won 2nd prize in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. After capturing 1st prize in the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition in Brussels in 1956, he began to pursue a career as a virtuoso. In 1958 he made his first tour of the U.S., which elicited critical accolades. In 1962 he and John Ogdon were both awarded 1st prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In 1963 Ashkenazy made his London debut. After leaving the Soviet Union, he went to Iceland in 1968 and in 1972 he became a naturalized Icelandic citizen. He later made his home in Switzerland. In 1969 Ashkenazy made his conducting debut with the Iceland Sym. Orch. in Reykjavik. In 1977 he made his British conducting debut with the Philharmonia Orch. of London, becoming its principal guest conductor in 1981. From 1987 to 1994 he was music director of the Royal Phil. of London, with which he toured Russia in 1989. He also served as principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orch. from 1987 to 1994. In 1989 he became chief conductor of the (West) Berlin Radio Sym. Orch., continuing in that position when it became the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin in 1994, and remaining with it until 1999. In 1998 he became music director of the Czech Phil. in Prague. Ashkenazy has appeared as a guest conductor with major orchs. on both sides of the Atlantic. With J. Parrott, he brought out the book Ashkenazy: Beyond Frontiers (London, 1984). As a master of the keyboard, he has deftly balanced his superlative technique with a penetrating interpretive insight in a broad repertoire. Among the composers he has revealed a remarkable affinity for are Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms, as well as many Russian composers, notably Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. As a conductor, he has demonstrated an assured command of scores from the 19th and 20th century orch. literature. He has prepared (1981–82) and conducted his own effective orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire