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Ashkenazy, Vladimir (Davidovich)locked

  • Stephen Plaistow

(b Gor′kiy [now Nizhniy Novgorod], July 6, 1937). Russian pianist and conductor, naturalized Icelandic. He was born into a musical Jewish family and entered the Moscow Central School of Music in 1945; his teacher there for the next ten years was Anaida Sumbatyan. His first major recital, devoted entirely to Chopin, was in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in April 1955, and later that year he gained second prize at the fifth Warsaw International Chopin Competition. In 1956, now a pupil of Lev Oborin at the Moscow Conservatory, he was awarded first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. While still a student he made his first tour outside the USSR the following year, to East and West Germany. After graduating, it was inescapable that he should be groomed for the second International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1962 (the American Van Cliburn having won the first), and he duly restored national honour by carrying off a shared first prize (with John Ogdon). His London début followed in 1963, and in that year he defected and settled in London with his Icelandic wife and son. In 1969 the family moved to Iceland, where he started to conduct, away from the glare of publicity and the pressures of international concert life. He has subsequently made his home in Switzerland.

For many years Ashkenazy was considered the finest of the young Russian players: for the 1960s, a once-in-a-generation virtuoso, such as Kissin was in the 1990s. Establishing his career with Chopin, he was recognized early on as having all the virtues of a great performer: musicianship, intellectual perception, technical perfection and musical instincts that never failed to make his fingers say something. In his first recording of Chopin's Etudes, completed in 1960 (Melodiya), he matched to perfection Chopin's inspiration, which took off from an exploration of the resources of the piano and the potentialities of timbre to be exploited by a new keyboard technique. Although Ashkenazy went on to record the complete piano works of Chopin, he never surpassed these early Etudes. After settling in the West he began an association with Decca, for which he has recorded virtually all the major works of the piano repertory. The achievement, inevitably, has been variable; it includes a complete set of the Mozart concertos, in which he directed the Philharmonia from the keyboard, two widely admired sets of the four Rachmaninoff concertos and the Paganini Variations (first with the LSO and Previn, then with the Royal Concertgebouw and Haitink), all the Prokofiev concertos and much of Prokofiev's solo music, and sets of distinction of the ten Skryabin sonatas and Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues op.87.

As his conducting activities grew, so Ashkenazy's solo career was reduced in proportion. He has an individual but expressive conducting technique, forged in the 1970s during his early years in Iceland; but he made the transition to the podium with complete success and his orchestral recordings are now as numerous as his others and the best of them as masterly. His orchestral début on disc was in Prokofiev's Classical Symphony in 1974; he went on to record all the Prokofiev symphonies, all the Sibelius (he is a dedicated Sibelian), and the three Rachmaninoff symphonies, in addition to other large-scale works of Rachmaninoff. Having made a triumphant return to his homeland in 1989, after an absence of 26 years, now as pianist and conductor, he has been free to work there again and has recorded most of the Shostakovich symphonies with the St Petersburg PO. Ashkenazy was music director of the RPO in London from 1987 to 1994, and since 1988 has held the same post with the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester, Berlin (the former Berlin RSO), with which he has recorded a fine Skryabin series. In 1998 he was appointed music director of the Czech PO, with whom he has toured extensively and made several recordings. In 2000 he became music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra. He describes his favoured repertory as Beethoven, Sibelius and Rachmaninoff. As a chamber music player and partner to singers, his recordings include sets of the Rachmaninoff songs with Elisabeth Söderström, lieder with Matthias Goerne and the Beethoven violin sonatas with Itzhak Perlman. A Chopin solo recording made in 1999 revealed a more reflective, autumnal approach to some of his favourite repertory. His autobiography, Beyond Frontiers, co-written with Jasper Parrott, was published in London in 1984.