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.
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.
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.
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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