Vladimir Ashkenazy was born in Gorky (present-day Nizhny Novgorod) in 1937 to artistic parents who organised his first piano lessons when he was six; within a few years he had enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory where he studied with inter alia Lev Oborin. A model student who progressed quickly, Ashkenazy won second prize at the Frédéric Chopin Competition in Warsaw (1955) and first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels (1956). Most of the students at the Conservatory were required by the KGB to spy on their fellows; Ashkenazy was no exception but gave only non-committal remarks regarding their music-making. Ashkenazy recalled that his teachers were excellent but limited in their outlook: there was little place in the curriculum for Western music. Consequently, he returned from Brussels with a suitcase full of Western scores including many compositions by Debussy and Ravel and became the envy of other students, many of whom were unfamiliar with these scores. He disliked the over-emotional approach to playing Russian music and was criticised for being too reserved.
In 1958, following Van Cliburn’s victory in the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow there was considerable disquiet among the Soviet authorities and as one of the most promising Soviet musicians, Ashkenazy was instructed personally by the Minister for Culture to enter the next competition in 1962. Each contestant was expected to play Tchaikovsky’s formidable Piano Concerto No. 1 but Ashkenazy felt that, with his small hands, he was not physically equipped to give of his best in a work which demands tremendous strength and stamina in the octave passages. As predicted he outscored his rivals in the earlier rounds but lagged behind the physically imposing John Ogdon in the Tchaikovsky piece. The judges had little option but to award first prize to both artists who shot to fame as a result and Ashkenazy was given leave to tour outside the Soviet Union.
In 1961 he married Thorunn Johannsdottir, an Icelandic piano student at the Moscow Conservatory. Her parents lived in London and in 1963 the young couple sought, and were given permission, to visit the British capital. Once there they decided to remain in England, moving to Iceland in 1968 (when Ashkenazy adopted Icelandic citizenship) and then ten years later to Switzerland. After leaving the USSR, Ashkenazy made up for lost time in absorbing Western culture and repertoire and with a recording contract to Decca, found himself in demand in the concert hall and studio. Much later he developed arthritis in his hands and, although he continues to play, he is more often seen as a conductor rather than as piano virtuoso. He made his conducting debut in 1969 and in 1987 he was appointed Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Two years later he also took up a similar position with the Deutsches-Sinfonie-Orchester in Berlin. He has been the Conductor Laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra and has held leading posts with the Czech Philharmonic, NHK Symphony, Sydney Symphony and Cleveland Orchestras. Ashkenazy’s extensive repertoire as a pianist extends from J S Bach to Shostakovich and Bartók but he is probably best known for his interpretation of the music of Chopin and Rachmaninov which have proved central to his career. Among other recorded highlights are cycles of the Beethoven and Mozart concertos and collections of Schubert, Schumann and Scriabin. As with the piano, Ashkenazy’s repertoire as a conductor is extensive and is noteworthy for his innovative projects centred on the works of Sibelius and Rachmaninov as well as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Strauss and Tchaikovsky.