Known for his repertoire of Russian and Romance music, Vladimir Ashkenazy is one of the most prolific piano players ever. You’ll find more info here regarding his legendary career and why he’s so important even today.
Who is Vladimir Ashkenazy?
Vladimir Ashkenazy is a Russian-born pianist, performer of chamber music and also a conductor. Born and raised in Russia, he later became a citizen of Iceland and is now currently living in Switzerland. All this time, he has never let go of his one true passion, classical music.
Vladimir has worked with various international orchestras and other soloists while also recording many works of romantic and classical music. Over the course of his career, he has received five Grammy Awards, the Order of the Falcon from Iceland and many other titles and honors.
His Early Life
He was born Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy in 1937 in Gorky, a city in the Soviet Union. The city bore this name from 1932 to 1990 to honor the works of socialist writer Maxim Gorky. The area returned to its previous name of Nizhny Novgorod following the fall of the Soviet Union.
His parents were also the artistic type, as his mother, Yevstlolia Grigorievna, was an actress, while his father, David Ashkenazi was a pianist and composer. We can take a guess about who had a more powerful influence over their child’s career. Vladimir’s household was multiethnic, as his mother was Russian Orthodox and his father was Jewish.
Like many great pianists, Vladimir started playing the piano at an early age – in this case, he was only six at the time. At only eight years old he was accepted into the Central Music School program where he studied with Armenian pianist Anaida Sumbatyan. She was the tutor of other future famed pianists like Oxana Yablonskaya and Sergey Musaelyan.
Pianist and Conductor
Vladimir went to study at the Moscow Conservatory under the tutelage of Lev Oborin, another famed pianist of the time and the first person to win the Frederic Chopin Piano Competition. Vladimir would later enter the same competition in 1955 where he would place second.
He would go on to win the podium prize at the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition which was held in Brussels in 1956 and shared the top spot with John Ogdon at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962.
This was only the start for Vladimir who would go on to make a bigger name for himself in the following decades, being considered as one of the greatest pianists of the XXth century with a wide range of works under his name.
Aside from being a piano player, Vladimir counts conducting as his other big love and was actually his main activity since the dawn of the XXI century. He started as Chief Conductor at the Czech Philharmonic for five years starting with 1998, after which he became the Music Director of the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo between 2004 and 2007.
Starting with 2009 he was named Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a position he held up until 2013. This doesn’t mean he had stopped playing the piano, as he performed “War Requiem” by Britten in 2013 as well.
All this time he has also maintained a long relationship with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra where he was named in 2000 as Conductor Laureate. He has often performed with them not only across the UK but also in long tours which took him to many parts of Europe and South America.
One of his most famous works is “Prokofiev and Shostakovich Under Stalin” which started in 2003 and was presented in many countries of the world, such as the United States, Germany, Austria, and Russia.
Vladimir also has other high profile positions internationally such as Conductor Laureate of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, of the NHK Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the European Union Youth Orchestra. In the past, he was the Principal Guest Conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra and Chief Conductor for the Berlin Orchestra between 1988 -1996.
Vladimir has been signed to the record label Decca ever since 1965 and has recorded dozens of albums under their collaboration. His first release was “Chopin: Four Balades; Trois Nouvelles Etudes” in the same year he signed the recording contract.
He has released at least an album every decade since 1965, being especially prolific starting with the 1980s. Among the five-star reviews he received from AllMusicGuide are “Franck: Violin Sonata; Brahms: Horn Trio” (1984), “Beethoven: Klaviersonaten, Opp. 53 & 111” (1993), “Rachmaninov: 24 Preludes” (2001) and many more.
His most recent release to receive a five-star rating from AllMusicGuide is the album “Rachmaninov: Symphony No.3; Symphonic Dances” from 2018.
Grammy Award-Winning Artist
Vladimir has received 7 Grammy Awards out of the 21 nominations. His first nomination came in 1964 for “Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 3 In D Minor For Piano” in the “Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Solo (With Orchestra)”.
In 1966 he received two nominations, one for “Mozart / Schumann Recital” in the “Best Classical Chamber Music Performance – Instrumental or Vocal” and one for “Chopin Ballades (1, 2, 3, 4)” in the “Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Solo (Without Orchestra)”.
In 1974 he was nominated in the “Album of the Year, Classical” category and in the “Best Classical Performance Solo (With Orchestra)” which he won – this was awarded for his album “Beethoven: The Piano Concertos”. This was the only time he won in this category.
Vladimir won two further Grammys in the “Best Instrumental Soloist Performance” in 1986 and in 2000, while he scored three wins in the “Best Chamber Music Performance” in 1979, 1982 and 1988.
From East to West
Vladimir’s personal life is certainly interesting as it was not easy to maintain an international career while being a citizen of the Soviet Union. This was further complicated by his wish to marry Þórunn Jóhannsdóttir, a student from Iceland at the Moscow Conservatory. Authorities have also pressured Vladimir to become a KGB informant.
In order for the two of them to be able to get married, Þórunn had to renounce her Icelandic citizenship and sign a declaration that she was willing to live in the Soviet Union. The two would finally get married in 1961.
Not many people were allowed to leave the USSR unless it was to visit another communist state so when Vladimir wanted to promote his work in the West, this proved to be a rather difficult task. He also wanted to be able to visit his in-laws as his wife had given birth in the meantime.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had a different recollection of the events. He said that Vladimir was married to an English woman (even though, in fact, she was Icelandic) and that when visiting London on a tour, he refused to come back.
Allegedly Vladimir turned to help from the Soviet Embassy in London who after consulting with Moscow, agreed not to ask him to return for good in the USSR as he was most likely an anti-soviet by now and would let him travel freely between West and East. Vladimir didn’t agree with this version of the events.
Regardless, by 1963 he had managed to settle in London, where his parents-in-law were now living. In 1968, the pair relocated to Iceland and in 1972 became a citizen of the country. In 1978 the couple and their four children moved to Switzerland. Vladimir and Þórunn still live in Switzerland to this day.
In total, the couple has five children: Vladimir Stefan, Nadia Liza, Dimitri Thor, Sonia Edda, and Alexandra Inga. Vladimir and Dimitri also have pursued careers in music, the first one as a pianist and the latter as a clarinetist.
After seven decades as one of the most prolific piano players and conductors of the world, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s management’s agency announced in January 2021 that he has officially entered retirement from public performances.
The news didn’t come to much surprise to many of his fans as the artist is now 83 years old and has been keeping away from many projects for quite some time.
Over the course of his career, he has performed “The Well-Tempered Clavier” and “French Suites”, both by Bach, the “24 Preludes and Fugues” of Shostakovich, plus the complete sonata works by both Beethoven and Scriabin, and all of the piano works of Chopin and Rachmaninoff plus almost all of the piano works of Schumann.
This makes Vladimir Ashkenazy one of the greatest classical performers of the XXth century, having earned his name in the history books.