Vladimir Ashkenazy is an acclaimed pianist and conductor, and in both fields is one of the foremost interpreters of Russian classical composers. He has assembled an immense and comprehensive catalogue of recorded works, including interpretations of many of the great pieces written for piano, and is the recipient of five Grammy Awards.
Ashkenazy was born in Gorky, then in the Soviet Union. Although his father was a professional pianist it was his mother that fostered their son’s musical abilities, finding him his first teacher at the age of six. Two years later he made his concert debut in Moscow, which set him on the path to become a concert pianist and eventually enroll in the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Lev Oborin. While Ashkenazy was still in his late teens he entered the international spotlight with several impressive piano competition performances, including receiving second place in the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1955 and first prize in the Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition the following year.
By the early 1960s Ashkenazy’s fame was growing, as he continued to travel in Europe and tied for first place in the 1962 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. However, the more he saw of life outside of the Soviet Union, the greater his dissatisfaction with his homeland, and the KGB (the Soviet Secret Police) were beginning to take notice. In 1963, following a successful debut with theLondon Symphony Orchestra and a recital at Festival Hall, Ashkenazy chose to remain in the United Kingdon, permanently parting with the Soviet Union. He eventually settled with his wife Thorunn Johannsdottir in her home country of Iceland before moving to Switzerland in 1973.
In June 2013, Gramophone magazine enthused “It is rare to find, in the same artist, the very highest levels of musical talent living alongside the deepest genuine humility. None has that rare combination in higher degree than Vladimir Ashkenazy.”
With his newfound artistic freedom, the next several decades were incredibly prolific for Ashkenazy, as he began to extensively record many of the finest compositions written for piano. These included the complete piano works of Rachmaninov, Chopin, and Schumann as well as all of the Prokofiev concertos and the 24 Preludes and Fugues byShostakovich, for which he won a Grammy Award. On these recordings and many others Ashkenazy became known for his clear articulation, incredible palette of tone colors and intuitive interpretations, particularly with the works of some of the great Russian composers. Outside of the studio he has toured the world performing with the best orchestras in the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra.
Starting in the 1970s Ashkenazy’s career began to branch out, becoming increasingly focused on conducting until it turned into his primary focus. He has served as the guest conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra, and as the chief conductor for theBerlin Radio Orchestra since 1989 and of the Sydney Symphony since 2009. He credits his background as an instrumentalist as allowing him to empathize with the orchestra to a greater degree, which in turn makes them feel more comfortable. As with his piano playing, Ashkenazy’s conducting is strongest and most emotional when interpreting composers from his native Russia, with one of the most notable examples of this being his definitive recording ofProkofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London.
“Ashkenazy relishes the roles of pianist and conductor, and to his credit he fills both roles quite well.” – Thomas McClain
Images courtesy of Philharmonia Orchestra, London