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#655577 - 11/08/02 07:59 AM
2000 Post Club Member
Loc: Denver, Colorado
I enjoyed reading this article. Thought this might interest some here on this board. It is featured in Guardian, UK:
Back in the USSR
Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the great virtuoso pianists
of our era, tells Stuart Jeffries about conducting, the
KGB and his defection to the west
Friday November 8, 2002
We are hurtling past Milton Keynes in
the fast lane of the M1 when Vladimir
Ashkenazy asks me to examine his
right hand. There are four of us in the
car - Derek the chauffeur and
Ashkenazy's delightful Icelandic wife
Thorunn in the front; the great
pianist-turned-conductor and me in the
back. We're on our way to Birmingham,
where this evening Ashkenazy will
conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra in
a concert that includes Tchaikovsky's
First Piano Concerto.
On Saturday he conducted the Czech
Phil in Prague, Monday was the
Philharmonia in Reading, Tuesday at
the Barbican, tomorrow the Barbican
again and then off on tour to Russia and
Japan. It's a hectic schedule - each year the 65-year-old
conducts 100 concerts. Ashkenazy hopes to nod off during the
journey to conserve his strength for the rehearsal. Perhaps after
Coventry, I might let him doze for a while, he asks.
On his lap, Ashkenazy has the score of Sibelius's Second
Symphony, which will be the second half of tonight's concert,
and a box of man-sized tissues. He picked up something nasty
in Reading and now, with charming politeness, apologises
repeatedly about his cold ("My stupid nose!"). He turns away
from me and, looking bleakly over Midlands fields, awaits
another horrible cough.
When he turns back, he holds up a hand. "Look at this. That is
why I don't play the piano so much any more. Can you see how
swollen that middle finger is? Arthritis." I tell him how I've been
playing his recording of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.
"Ah, I hate that work! It's not great, it's really a decorative work,
but it demands such technical virtuosity. All those octaves, ah!
Such pain! If I practised like a slave I could just about do it now."
He surveys the Daventry turn-off. "But I won't. It took me two
years to practise the Rachmaninov Transcriptions [which he
recorded for his latest well-received CD].
"I prefer to record. But I recorded too much. There are so many
recordings and I didn't need to repeat other people's efforts." He
looks lugubriously over the sprawl of Northampton, coughs
frighteningly and mops his brow. "It just happened, not because
I deliberately wanted to, just because I was asked. One of the
reasons I became a conductor and cut back on playing piano is
because I thought I recorded too much." He's being hard on
himself - his 1999 recording of Shostakovitch's Preludes and
Fugues, for instance, was hailed by the Guardian as "hugely
impressive" and "an unqualified success".
And concerts? "I play fewer concerts these days. I can't play
more." Instead, tonight Ashkenazy, 65, will conduct 25-year-old
Russian pianist Alexander Ghindin in Tchaikovsky's most
soupy, bombastic and puzzlingly disjointed concerto. Isn't it
painful for Ashkenazy, who himself was a keyboard tyro and
winner of the Tchaikovsky piano competition in 1962, to conduct
another person in a work he once made his own? "I just really
enjoy it. I don't get very nervous. When I come on to the podium,
I feel I am at home."
As a conductor (he is currently chief conductor for the Czech
Philharmonic and conductor laureate of the Philharmonia
Orchestra), Ashkenazy has developed a reputation for
reinvigorating orchestras, not with particularly radical concert
programmes, but with huge enthusiasm and an
unpretentiousness that has earned him great respect among
How do young soloists react when they come under the baton of
this diminutive giant of classical music? "They love it," says Mrs
Ashkenazy authoritatively, breaking off from a discussion with
Derek about congestion charges. "They don't feel threatened,
and of course he knows the stuff backwards so it's a great
asset. When he used to play with conductors who were not
pianists it was a problem."
Her husband agrees: "Sometimes you have these conductors
who don't know the pieces and don't understand the soloist's
struggles. There are exceptions - André Previn, for example, and
Zubin [Mehta] was wonderful." Thorunn, herself a noted concert
pianist, says: "Zubin is a double bass player but through
intuition - or something - he understood the pianist's role." "He's
unbelievable," concedes her husband. "So many conductors just
haven't got the foggiest idea," she adds. "No no, not at all," says
Ashkenazy. "Karajan was never that good. He didn't care.
"Let me tell you a story about the Tchaikovsky piano
competition in Moscow in 1962. I really didn't want to participate
in it. But the culture ministry thought it was disgusting that an
American, Van Cliburn, had won the previous year. The minister
of culture met us and told us to get ready for the competition,
and practise the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. I said to the
minister: 'This piece doesn't fit me very well.' What a crazy thing
for me to have said! She knew nothing of music. She didn't know
that I meant it was technically very difficult for a pianist with
such small hands. So I went away and practised." And he won.
The following year, though, he left the Soviet Union. The couple's
main home is now in Switzerland. "I was sent on a UK tour in
1963 and stayed." Why? "What do you want? A general answer,
a personal answer or what?" Whichever you'd prefer. "If you'd
lived in the Soviet Union, you'd know," he says. "I was 26. I had
a chance that I might never get again. At that time you realised
or you decided not to realise. Some decided to live with the
reality. Some people had no chance of doing anything else. And
I had the chance of staying abroad. Had we not left, I don't know
how I would have managed. The continuous compromises... My
wife was a foreigner, which made it more difficult."
Thorunn looks round: "What? If you hadn't been married to a
foreigner, do you think you would have left, or later?" "How do I
know? Maybe." Why was it difficult to be married to a foreigner
in the Soviet Union? "Foreigners were representative of
decadence, they were bourgeois," says Ashkenazy. "They were
from the hostile west." Thorunn giggles.
She met Ashkenazy in Moscow, where she had gone to study
music. "I was 21 and totally naive politically," she says. "I
wasn't like some of those South American students there who
were convinced communists. That made them suspicious."
"They also didn't trust even committed communists if they were
foreign," says Ashkenazy. "Think of how they treated Kim
Philby - when he defected to Moscow, the KGB wouldn't trust
him to run a department even though he had given his life to the
"In the end, we got totally paranoid. We were forever being
hauled in front of local committees for no good reason." The
couple set up home in London and, in 1972, Ashkenazy took
Icelandic citizenship. Did you ever think of going back? "From
1963 to 1989 I didn't go back. That was 26 years. By then the
links were cut."
The shadow of the Soviet Union still falls over his life. Next year,
to commemmorate the 50th anniversary of that extraordinary
day in Soviet history when both its most foul tyrant, Josef Stalin,
and one of the greatest Soviet composers, Sergei Prokofiev,
died (March 5 1953), Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia will
perform a season of concerts on the theme of dictatorship and
art. "I still think about the day of Stalin's funeral. I walked
through Moscow. I was 15. The Metro wasn't running; there were
no shops open. Everybody was crying, everyone was saying:
'Our father is dead. What will we do now?' All that brainwashing!
I went to see my Armenian piano teacher. During the lesson,
she whispered into my ears: 'Things will be better.' And I was
terrified. It was frightening to hear, to sit next to someone who
could dare say that."
We turn on to the M6. "It was a disgusting time. Even in terms
of music, we were so insular. We didn't really know western
music at all. In 1956 I went to Brussels to perform and I came
back with suitcases filled with scores of music by Ravel and
Debussy - and I suddenly became a focal point for musicians in
Moscow who wanted to study these rare documents. What a
terrible indictment of our country. It was an embarrassment to
be Russian. In 1955, the Boston Symphony Orchestra came
and in one concert they performed the Soviet anthem. Before I
heard them, I thought our orchestras played it well, but the
Americans played it much more beautifully. The problem was
our instruments were no good. It was a national shame. But
throughout that time visiting western orchestras always gave us
music lessons in performing music beautifully."
A sign tells us that we are in Warwickshire, Shakespeare's
county. There's a link with tonight's concert. "We start with
Tchaikovsky's music for The Tempest. It will be wonderful - I love
playing in St Simon's Cathedral." He means Symphony Hall. "I
always call it that. We should be so grateful that it exists.
Birmingham owes Rattle so much."
What does he think of Rattle's move to Berlin and his praise for
the seriousness of German culture compared with Britain's
alleged failure to support music properly? "I think one should be
very careful what one says about these matters. Trust me on
this, there are plenty of people in Germany who don't like
culture. I spent 10 years conducting in Berlin [as chief conductor
and music director for the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester] so I
know what I'm talking about.
"I'm very happy to be in Britain, a country where there's a great
tradition of support for music. In Germany the tradition came
from local dukes and developed into local municipal government
supporting music. But even the high culture of Germany was
pernicious. I remember performing Rachmaninov in Berlin and
they were so critical of it. Like Sibelius, they didn't get it. In fact,
for me the high culture of Germany was poisonous - Adorno
[Theodor Adorno, Frankfurt school philosopher and musicologist]
was like a fuhrer who explained music to death. For me, music
isn't like that. I believe music is connected with our existence.
Music is a mystery."
Favourite conductor? "Barenboim." It that because he is a great
pianist too? "Of course!" chips in Thorunn brightly.
A vision of Rugby imposes itself briefly. Ashkenazy dozes. Only
as we pull up to the gates of Symphony Hall does he come
back to life. After a quick dab with the Remington in the
dressing room ("Concentrate on the upper lip if you're having
your picture taken," counsels Thorunn), he trots down to the
rehearsal in the main auditorium. Thorunn and I sit next to each
other in the stalls while mighty-handed Ghindin biffs up and
down the keyboard with harrowing dexterity. Vladimir leans
against the piano feyly. Is he going to be all right? "No problem,"
beams Thorunn. "With a soloist like that? The adrenalin will flow
- he'll be fine."
And so it proves. Throughout the concerto Ghindin, thick-set like
Tony Soprano, sweeps the sweat from his face whenever he has
a spare moment. Not to be outdone, Ashkenazy dabs himself
with tissues as he rushes off stage following the ovation. Then
Ghindin comes back for a virtuosic solo encore.
You can see why Ghindin had no problem with the massive
spans of the Tchaikovsky - what big, nimble hands he has! It's
the second half, though, that draws the standing ovation the
conductor anticipated a few hours earlier. Despite the cold and
the arthritis, his baton hand whips the Philharmonia and
Birmingham crowd into something like a frenzy.
"Russians aren't as Nordic in their tastes as you English,"
Ashkenazy told me shortly after Luton. "They don't love Sibelius
as you do." But you love him? "Yes. Maybe after all these years
I'm not so Russian."
Among the great living pianists today Ashkenazy certainly has the largest repertoire. His concerto list is much longer than that of Mr. Hamelin or Howard that was mentioned on the other forum.
#655579 - 11/09/02 11:28 AM
Re: Ashkenazy's musings...
Loc: San Diego
Thanks for sharing this. Quite interesting. I believe Ashkenazy has developed into a good conductor. I saw him lead the Czech Philharmonic a couple of years ago. Very good performance of the Prokofiev 5th (one of my favorites). His piano playing is beyond reproach. The recent Rachmaninoff disc I enjoyed a lot. Sorry to hear about his arthritis problem. At least he can continue conducting. Ashkenazy mentions Barenboim in the article. Here's Norman Lebrecht's recent article about Barenboim on the Naxos site... Naxos site
#655580 - 11/11/02 12:08 PM
Re: Ashkenazy's musings...
1000 Post Club Member
Loc: Coxsackie, New York
Thanks for this interview with Vladimir Ashkenazy. It seems that I have watched his career all my life and now to think he is 65 and I am 51. We are all getting older. Ashkenazy has an amazing repertoire, all of Chopin, and everything else. I don't know if I always like his interpretations better than anyone else's, but the other day I heard a recording of Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony, one I like, and it was intimate, warm and intense, Moscow Chamber Players I think.
His comments about Soviet life are repeated everywhere by other Russian émigrés. We have our own problems in the West, but communism, which was supposed to preserve Russian culture from bourgeois decadence, was no help to the Russian people as Ashkenazy surely knows.
His schedule seems impossible. How on earth can you get an orchestra in shape and in tune with you as a conductor with such little time to rehearse? I certainly wouldn't do it. As for knowing the repertoire, everyone knows it, the audiences have all heard dozens of recordings of the same works, many have bought portable scores, have excellent high fidelity systems, etc. A number of us have even had experience conducting. One still needs more rehearsal time. How is it that classical music is supposedly in its death throes and conductors like Ashkenazy have schedules as grueling as big league executives, actors / actresses and sports millionaires?
#655581 - 11/11/02 09:29 PM
Re: Ashkenazy's musings...
500 Post Club Member
very interesting interview...thanks for posting it!
#655582 - 11/14/02 08:22 AM
Re: Ashkenazy's musings...
2000 Post Club Member
Loc: Denver, Colorado
You're welcome, Guys!
I also hold the highest respect for Ashkenazy the musician whether he plays the piano or stands up there on the podium.
For the past decade or two IMHO, he turns out to be a better conductor than a pianist. There's no shortage of bashing of his baton motions and techniques. I personally couldn't care less how a conductor jolts his stick. I do care every bit how the orchestra sounded under his leadership. He did a more than excellent Sibelius Symphony cycle with Philharmonia under Decca. His Rach second symphony should be among the best ever recorded. In this area David B., I think he was so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the best orchestras in the world. The likes of Czech Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, The Philharmonia, Concertgebouw, etc. Seriously, all these orchestra can perform almost anything on very high level even WITHOUT a conductor. This is not meant to trash Ashkenazy's conducting skills but at least partially contributes to the fact that with little amount of time and energy for rehearsals he still managed to bring good results out of them. I wish our maestro the best!