Vladimir Ashkenazy – exclusive interview – anniversary week
Six Beethoven and Chopin recitals performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and recorded in the early 1980s are entering the medici.tv catalogue this week. We have encountered the legendary pianist – now a worldwide renowned conductor as well – and asked him some questions about his career and vision of music. With a new Chopin album to be released on the Decca label on July 2, for the 75th birthday of the pianist, it was time for us to learn more about his relationship with the Polish composer he performs so well (Vladimir Ashkenazy was awarded the second prize at the 1955 Chopin Competition).
medici.tv: What is your relationship with Chopin?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: Chopin was one of the very few composers who gave us something unique in their individual expression, and my view of him has always been that of someone with an absolute devotion to his sublime gift.
medici.tv: What about Beethoven?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: I am totally disarmed by Beethoven. His gift was not only unique, but also all-encompassing; totally beyond description.
medici.tv: In your opinion, what is needed to play Chopin?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: I cannot give you a prescription for that. My basic principle is an identification with each composer’s idiom, whether it be Brahms, Chopin or Shostakovich. I try to understand, and identify with, what Chopin wanted. This has always been principle in music. I cannot always expect it to be successful, but this is what I strive for.
medici.tv: Who are you favourite performers for Chopin?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: Difficult to say. Perhaps, very often it is the very young pianists who take Chopin’s music without any preconditions, play it naturally and musically, without any distortions, especially without any reference to some of the attitudes prevalent during the first half of the 20th century. Purity of expression and delivery is the most important element, without any distortion, in my opinion, in music of any composer.
medici.tv: How did you meet Christopher Nupen?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: I met him when he started doing radio, and then television programmes on classical music. It was probably in the mid-1960s when he was producing a radio programme on Scriabin for, I believe, the BBC.
medici.tv: Can you explain when exactly you started playing less piano and conducting more?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: Impossible to say. It was a very gradual process. As for now, I still practise every day on the piano, record extensively (I just completed recording all of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano repertoire in March), but all my performing activities are centered on conducting now, as well as some duo work with my pianist son, Vovka, and my clarinetist son, Dimitri, but no more solo recitals. For various artistic and personal reasons, this is the best solution at this stage of my life.
medici.tv: Had you ever intended to be a conductor when you started you career as a pianist?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: No, I never intended to be a conductor, although my incredible interest in the symphony orchestra dates back to when I was about seven or eight years old; I will never forget the effect my first orchestral concert had on me in Moscow. Ever since, and absolutely in parallel with my growing success as a concert pianist, there was a continuous fascination with the symphony orchestra and its orchestral repertoire. As a child and teenager, I collected orchestral scores, went to endless orchestral rehearsals and performances, and bought LPs of orchestral music, and although I never dreamed of becoming a conductor, the fact that I became one seems to be a natural consequence of my identification with the orchestra and its repertoire.
medici.tv: Can you pick your favourite concert/film on medici.tv?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: No, I cannot, but I must say that I am almost sure it would be Christopher Nupen’s films. His devotion to the subject of how music is made (the relationship between the composer and the performer) is unique.
medici.tv: Now that you have been travelling so much, and left your native country for so long, would you still say, like once, that “the vital juices in you are Russian”?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: I wish I were able to answer this question. However, my guess would be that certain elements of Russian spirituality are present in me, but I must say that when I left Russia at the age of twenty-six, I was aware of the fact that however rich were the spiritual elements that surrounded me in Russia, there were certain limitations attached to them. Therefore, I was very fortunate to have left the country at a relatively early age in order to be able to absorb what the rest of world had to offer, and I am enormously grateful for that.
medici.tv: Do you still sometimes listen to music (just for pleasure)? If you do so, what do you listen to?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: Naturally I listen to music I am not familiar with, and it very often gives me great pleasure; sometimes an extraordinary performance on a high spiritual level of a well-known piece can also be very uplifting. It is a never-ending process without any preconditions, all depending on circumstances.
medici.tv: Your repertoire is very wide…
Vladimir Ashkenazy: I have always been fascinated with a lot of different repertoire and composers and I felt I wanted to identify with so many of them. I am very lucky that I was able to do so much.
medici.tv: Is there someone in the young generation of artists you feel close to?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: I am afraid I do not have enough time to be able to assess what is happening in the performing arts related to your question. Occasionally I am exposed to some of the most prominent and successful young performers, those who have been recommended to me, but being close is more difficult. This is not to say that some performers of extraordinary talent are not able to move me, but that is all part of life.
medici.tv: One of our subscribers asked if you still trained with other pianists?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: No, it is very rare that I perform together with other pianists, but nowadays I perform and record piano duos with my son Vovka and I enjoy this very much.