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 wellknown 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.
Emigrated Under Duress
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-yearold 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 celebrity in the Soviet Unioneceived 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.
A Heady New Era
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 lugubriousness 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 outnd 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."
Controversial Career Change
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."
Champion of Russian Music
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 quintessentially 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 qualitychernozyomhat 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 Rachmaninov (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.
Chopin Favourites-Nocturne No. 1/Polonaise No. 53 etc., 1990.
Favourite Rachmaninoff, André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra, 1992.
10 Waltzes/7 Nocturnes, 1992.
Violin Sonatas Nos. 9 & 10, Itzhak Perlman, 1994.
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.
Capriccio Italien/The Tale of Tsar Sultan/Polovtsian Dances etc., Royal Philharmonic
Orchestra/Philharmonia Orchestra, 1996.
Symphony No.7/Shostakovich broadcasts from besieged Leningrad, St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, 1997.
Chopin for Lovers, 1998.
24 Preludes & Fugues, 1999.
The Art of Ashkenazy, 1999.
4 Ballades/4 Scherzi etc., 2000.
Ashkenazy: Beyond Frontiers (autobiography; with Jasper Parrott), Atheneum, 1985.
American Record Guide, May/June 1993, p. 68; November/December 1993, p. 240; September/October 1994, p. 198; July/August 1999, p. 47.
Atlantic, December 1990, p. 116.
Nation, March 14, 1987, p. 336.
National Review, February 11, 1991, p. 57.
Opera News, September 1997, p. 62.
Telegraph (U.K.), October 22, 1998; May 6, 1999.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 9, 2001).
National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, http://www.grammy.com (January 29, 2001).
"Vladimir D(avidovich) Ashkenazy," Contemporary Authors Online, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 21, 2001).
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