thumbnail of A conversation with...; Vladimir Ahskenazy
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
A conversation with Vladimir Ashkenazi. This is another in a continuing series of programs, each of which offers the listener a rare opportunity to hear an eminent musician, informally discussing his own career, and expressing his thoughts about a variety of topics related to the art of music. The regular participants in these discussions are Arendt Parsons, Professor of Music Theory at Northwestern University's School of Music, and Program Annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and George Stone, Program Director for Zenith Radio Corporation's Sirius Music Station, W-E-F-M in Chicago. Mr. Parsons and Mr. Stone have as their guest on today's program the talented young pianist, Vladimir Ashkenazi. Now here is George Stone. Mr. Ashkenazi, as a winner in the three outstanding international competitions for pianists, you certainly can provide some insights about what happens to a young winner afterwards.
The good things might seem obvious, but there are some problems as well. Let's consider both sides of the coin. I could elaborate on this, I suppose, for quite some time, but I think the shortest reply would be that it's all very individual, that it depends on the attitude of a particular individual you're talking about. In other words, a pianist or a violinist might win a first prize in a very important competition and become nothing after that. And vice versa. And you could find yourself many examples, so I wouldn't like to mention names. You could dig up in the catalogs who won the award and who became award. Now, so it all depends on the attitude to music to your art, how serious you aren't, how
much you see in your art, what you want to express. Because just to get a first prize doesn't require as much as to become a really important artist, because you can be in your best, you know, on your lucky day when you play to the third round, and others might be not in their lucky day, you know, and you want the first prize. Fine, very good. So it gives you a push. Everyone knows you want the first prize, so people invite you to play here and there, and that's when it begins. So those are on the plus side, what definite perils do you think there are? Perils of what, after the competition? Yeah, during. No, after the competition. We might also speak of during, but right now I mean following the competition and the person has won. I think it's obviously the danger is to fall below the kind of level that you think you achieved by winning this first prize, you know, and so, really, on the surface, because
on a really serious level, serious level of music making, I don't think you could talk about perils, that just doesn't enter the problem. Well, yes, when we're talking about serious music making, and this speaks an attitude of the artist, one would assume that the serious artist would be wise enough to avoid, let's say, the temptation of accepting more engagements than will be good for him, will limit his acquisition of new repertoire, that sort of thing. Yes, that's one of the aspects. You could say that he would be just, would accept as many engagements as he thinks fit at the moment. You see, he might accept many engagements with one of the same program, for instance, on one of the same concert, which he thinks he plays very well. That would be, to me it would be acceptable, I would understand that, you know, he would
want to keep up the, you know, the superficial way of his career, you know, sort of, publicity and success. That's only normal, you know, all human beings. And then it would be up to him how he goes on after that. Well, let's get back to him to what we said a moment ago about curing the competition. What is the atmosphere at a competition such as the Chakowsky or the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium? Well, it's never lacking more than anything else. And also, on a good side, it's very friendly, because all the young colleagues say, are not really jealous of each other, and they exchange experience, whatever they have at such a young age, you know, become friends, and that's one of the good sides. But then actually playing in preparation for the competition, this is all nerve-wracking,
because, you know, unfortunately, not only music matters at the competitions, but, you know, how fast you play this octave passage, or that third passage, you know, unfortunately, things have to be exciting as well as serious, and very often very serious musicians don't get anywhere if they didn't manage to play a few technical places, as well at least as those who can play very well, you know, and that's very bad. That's why some eventually great musicians don't get good prizes in competitions, that happens quite often. Do you think technical ability is acquired or innate? Well, it's both, but the technical ability that a person is born with, if it's kept up properly, is far greater than such acquired ever.
You could think of, just think of Horowitz, who was born with his incredible fingers and incredible wrist. Of course he had to work, but he had to work, probably, I assume, but I'm pretty sure I'm right, that he had to work just to keep it on that level, not to let it fall below, to sort of adjust it properly to different places in the repertoire, you see. And he didn't have to acquire it, it was there, you see. Other pianists have to acquire it, it's never so exciting, from simply purely technical point of view, it's not as exciting ever. Did you acquire your technique, I'm sure, I can only... Well, I know that I was born with some things, I know that I lacked by birth, I lacked some other things, and of course I worked quite a lot on many aspects of the piano technique.
So did you begin studying? When I was six. This was in Gorky, your birthplace, yes, you studied. No, no, no, I moved to Moscow and I moved to my family. So you were then born in Gorky, then a product of Moscow and the Moscow Conservatory, did you begin as a child, study at the Conservatory? Yes, I began when I was six, first of the private teaching, then in the central musical school of Moscow, which is under the Conservatory's provision. I gather from the reports that we have read that you, speaking of technical matters and musical matters, that you move very rapidly, because after a year I believe you were playing a high-end concerto. Yes, that's true, just after even a few months, which makes me think that certain of these technical matters came to you very naturally, some of them, yes, they must have, because
one couldn't have the virtuosity, but you now display with such ease. Some of them came very easily, that's true, but not all. Not all, well you see, I wanted to go back to that, because when you said a moment ago, that there were some things that had to be acquired from your performances today, it would baffle one to try to decide what might have been acquired, because it all now apparently comes with such absolute ease in all your performances, and particularly in such a work as the Prokofiev, which we have just heard you perform, where it looks so easy and obviously is so difficult. So what did you acquire? Oh, I know. Why it looks easy, because I don't make much movement, because I believe in the economy of movements. I was taught that way, that I shouldn't move my hands too much, because then you simply spend unnecessary energy.
So you should move just as much as you need to hit that key, or that key. It sounds like the rock money enough tradition, then. Probably he didn't move very much, that's true. Yes. Well, what did I acquire? It's difficult to say, because I couldn't tell you this aspect of technique I acquired later, all this, I believe that technique is a psychological matter, in that your brain gives you signals to do that or that. And if, you know, in your childhood, you develop, no, you learn certain kinds of passages, which you can do very easily, and it can happen that some other kind of things, some other kind of combinations, I know double notes or octaves or something. You just didn't come across, that can happen, not because the teacher is bad or something, just it can happen very easily, and I found out when I was 20-something that some kind of things weren't very well-signalized from my brain, that's all.
It's just as simple as that, and as complicated as that, because I had to acquire some things to make my brain think that this is not so difficult, it's simple, and give me the right signals to do this. I don't know if I could point out some place, probably I could, if I went through all my repercussions, say, you know, when I was 18, I couldn't play this, now I can, you know, so it would be just like that. But it's constant, it's from year to year. Was your first exposure to the piano at age 6 when you began studying? Was I exposed to music at home, yes, my father is a pianist. He still plays, he's kind of an accompanist for variety programs, but he's very good at that. Anyway, music was always in the house, he recorded records with singers and some groups and things like that, and that's how I was exposed to music, and there was a piano always. Did your father begin your instruction or did you start else?
No, he never had to do anything with my teaching in fact, and probably in a way it's a good thing because he didn't go through a complete high musical education. He went through only a few classes and he was so gifted and so talented and he wanted to go straight into life without studying more, so in fact he hadn't had complete education and he went straight to a company in variety things. So he couldn't teach me really. My mother took me to my first teacher and I remember once my father came back from some one trip and he thought I could play the piano, and when he left I couldn't play a note, he didn't even know that I went to a teacher. He was so surprised. I was so sure of that. Well, two or three months I think, he goes on long trips sometimes. You started in a preparatory division of the conservatory in Moscow, I believe.
Yes, it's called a school. It's ten years' school. Ten years' school. It's not a preparatory thing, it's just the way education can be. The continuing curriculum. Yes, it's ten years of all general subjects and music, and only after that you can go into the conservatory. What's the nature of the musical instruction, it includes piano lessons, other studies in music, you know, ten years. Oh, yes. Oh. Self-adjournal theory, harmony, history of music, all of that is in the ten-year period. In the self-adjournal, do you use the French system? Yes, we say Doremi Fassal, that's right. And then this course prepares you for an entrance into the conservatory. Is it necessary to have had this kind of training to enter the conservatory? Yes, otherwise you can't, only with the certificate of either such a school or else you can go to a, which is called Uchil issue, which means a technique for four years.
But before this technique, we have to go into a musical school of seven years, so it's just the same. The conservatory period of study is about four years, I believe, for the five, is it five years? Does that lead to what we call a master's degree or bachelor's degree? Well, it's so different in Rachida Kun compared. When you graduate the conservatory, you can, you don't get any kind of degree as you get here when you graduate from some high school. But you are allowed, you say, legible, to license, to teach in a seven or ten-year school, musical school, but you are not licensed to teaching in the conservatory. But if you go after five years in the conservatory, if you go to another three years of postgraduate studies, which is called master classes, and usually you go to the same
conservatory for the postgraduate studies, then if you finish the graduate with those with excellency, then you are allowed to teach in any concert in any high music school in Russia. How long were you in the conservatory? I was five years and then I went into the postgraduate studies and I hadn't completed it because I moved to England. Well then you still were a student at the conservatory. At the time you entered and won two of these competitions, would that be right? Only two in 55 and 56. Yes. In fact, in 55 I wasn't yet in the conservatory, only in the school. In 56, yes, I was already in the conservatory. In 62, the Czechoski competition, I was in the postgraduate studies. I see. Then your first international competition was the Chopin in Warsaw, and that was in 1955.
Was that before or after your period of study with Overeen? Before. Before, 55 was before. And you studied with him at the conservatory or was this private instruction? No, with him I was in the conservatory and I started after the competition in the fall of 55. I entered the conservatory. So I was prepared for this competition by a woman teacher by the name of Sum by Tan. She is an Armenian, like a Czechoslovakian. Yes. How do you spell Sum by Tan? As you M B A T I A N, ten years, she prepared me entirely for the Chopin competition. What would you say is the ideal age, if indeed it's possible to pinpoint such a thing,
for the beginning of piano study? Or as another part of that question, when would you say it is too late for a youngster to begin? I really would have no idea to say when it's too late, because to start with I don't teach, or at least I don't teach on a scale where you know when it's too late, to start to play the piano. At least I haven't had such experience as to be able to tell you. I would only think that something like after 12, 14 probably might be too late, but again it's all different. You know, Svetislav Richter, he really started practicing the piano properly when he was 14, probably he played the piano before, but never seriously, never practiced it seriously, and it wasn't certainly too late for him to start with one of the ones he would say.
So you never know, it's also individual, but somewhere between 14, 15, 16 probably can be too late. When you're ready for a grown-up person, when your brain isn't so receptive to taking things, not so fresh anymore than it's too late, but with every person it can be a little different. I believe. What is it, it's too late if you're going to attain the kind of superior virtuosity of the instrument, of course, it's never too late if all you're going to do is entertain yourself. Not only that, we're really talking about virtuosity aspect, because as far as the real musicianship is concerned, you might as well not play the piano, you might be one of the greatest musicians, you might conduct, you'll be the greatest, you know, nothing to do that. What's the essence of the technical aspects of piano playing, which you must have had during those 10 years and in the pre-conservatory level and then they were continued and you
built continually on that, you mentioned the fact that you moved very little. That's one aspect of this. I was taught to be always relaxed in my arms and hands and genuinely in all the body, you know, spinal column, I don't know what everything relaxed and in fact to use all your body to play, so that it all participates in the way, all muscles of the body. That's all I can remember. Is there a method, you know, we speak of the restatisky method and the matey method and so on. Did you have any kind of a method that was taught in your training? I don't think so. At least I don't remember any title of a method. Well, maybe it goes back to that teacher whose name I shall not attempt to pronounce. Well, my teacher was a pupil of a pupil of Jesipoma, he must have heard Jesipoma, she was quite famous and she had kind of her own method, I think, or maybe it comes from
Lichetisky, I think, she did was with Lichetisky method. I think so too, I mean, just not sure. Then in that case, you see, I had Lichetisky method, a couple of generations removed. During your conservatory studies, did you go into composition, did you write? Not in the conservatory, in this school, I went for a year for composition, I wrote a few small pieces, which sounded like a bad check of scale. Do you think that the composition is an important, so to say, a desirable aspect of the training of a musician? Oh, I would say it's desirable, yes. It's difficult to say it's indispensable, because a very thorough history of music with good analysis of music could be adequate, and the thing that composition would be very
necessary. That is, if you are not interested in becoming a composer, because if you want to be a composer with a study, that's not a matter of problem, but for a general musician, it could be just a very good history of music, a very important analysis, and, you know, my guess. What kinds of things did you write when you were doing this experimental composition? Piano pieces, not very good, not very important, very short, and really nothing. Well, probably, though, quite important to you, to me, in your development. Probably, yes. I was 13 or 14, and to me, then I thought it was, my pieces were really fantastic, and I even received the highest mark from my composition teacher, but I still have to one or two years past, and I saw how bad they were, and then I thought, no, I bet they don't
go on anyone. You've not been tempted since to do anything along these lines? No. No, never. The analysis, you speak of, though, you apparently think is very important to you as a musician and as a pianist. Of course. How do you carry on this approach to the study of the score in your work today? How much does the analysis play in your own, say, projection of a Prokofi F-3rd piano guitar? Oh. Well, you know, I don't any more think of how this spot corresponds to another spot in the concert, because it's now automatic. You see, it had to be, a bassist had to be laid down of this analysis, and then it becomes part of you, so I think it's so important, but how it works, I can't tell you, because it's already part of myself. If you begin the study of a new composition, a new sonata, a concerto, do you start at
the piano, do you start reading the score in an easy chair, or... Oh, it's different. It's always different. Sometimes I go to a concert and I hear that particular sonata for the 39th time, you know. This 39th time, something strikes me, that, you know, I must learn this piece. Never thought of it before, but now I think I must learn, and of course I know it very well already after 40 times of hearing it. So I go on, I open the score, and by the way, I side-read very well, so there's no problem from it to open the score and just almost play the piece. So and I learn it in the matter of days, so I don't have to look at this score separately then. And what, if I just this learning process, just by having heard it, by playing it, then you know it.
Well, I think a learning process for me is an emotional process, how is that? Emotional is to put the significance of the piece into your complex of your personality, so to speak. And if it's done, then you don't have to memorize as such, because then piece memorises by itself, by the significance of its content, that's all I could say. And then that memory is such that you don't forget it when you are playing, or you don't even worry about it. No, no, the fatal memory slips and that, no, they're very rare. Just put it that way. You could never be guaranteed against a famous little bit, they're very rare. But some pieces, you know, some modern pieces are very hard to put into your emotional, how to say, into, gender into your emotions, as I said. And then you have to memorize some things.
And indeed some of the compositions are composed, not emotionally, but intellectually. And they're not even meant to mean anything emotionally. You know, we're sort of taking us not complexes anymore, but some sort of computers, you know. Then you have to memorize, and then your brain better be very clear. What are some pieces of this sort that you have had to work at in this manner? Well, I don't play these kinds of pieces anyway. So I only know how it can happen, that you have to really memorize it in your brain. I tried to memorize a few things like that. I did, but I don't find any satisfaction of performing some modern pieces. I understand, then, from what you're saying, that an emotional involvement in the music is, from your point of view, essential. You can memorize one of these graph sheets, but unless you somehow are involved with the
music, it doesn't interest you. Well, then you shouldn't play for not emotionally involved. Forget it. I was interested in your saying this, because when you are on the platform of the concert hall to the audience, to one of an audience, let us say, you are a very intense person. Everything seems to be focused on that moment when you sit down to the instrument. As you sit here in the studio, and as I've seen you elsewhere, you are very relaxed. Yes, this is almost a dual life that you have, that which is on the platform, and that which is here. No, I don't think it's dual life, it's one of the same. The thing is that everything is concentrated on playing, and, in fact, performance is the peak of all my life.
Every performance is. So I'm one of the same person, but just I believe in submitting all my life to my profession. That's all. Do you practice, do you have the same intensity that you exhibit in the concert hall? Yes, in most of the cases. Of course, yes, I should think so. There's that constant emotional involvement with the music that you work with. Or at least it's trying to gear yourself onto involvement, because I'm a normal human being, and obviously, some days of the week, I'm not very well disposed to this work of that. I don't feel so emotionally involved, and there's so many things that happen around you in life that you have to think of other things. But the ideal thing is, of course, to be always involved and always try it.
Is physical practice a dispensable part of the preparation for public performance? In which sense? Well, in the sense that we think of a pianist, a revivalist, practicing physically, doing the practice. Is a contemplation of the music without actual performance of the music, rehearsing it? I know. A vehicle volume. Yes. Well, there are some spots in the piano repertoire that for me can be very taxing physically, let's say. And those spots, for the sake of an exciting performance, I would have to play at home as many times as necessary to feel that I don't get tired. It's not a question of physical practice. I think it's a combination of physical and mental practices. Yes, certainly.
This would be true. I didn't mean divorcing one from the other, except in the reverse instance where it would not actually be fingering the keyboard. Oh. You see? So when I have to psychologically be in a position to feel that I don't get tired here and I shouldn't get tired and feel as relaxed as you can, that's it, then that's finished. You are listening to a conversation with Vladimir Ashkenazi with Aaron Parsons and George Stone. We pause ten seconds for station identification. Now resuming the conversation with Vladimir Ashkenazi, here is George Stone. Well, now your repertoire encompasses a great period of time from Bach, certainly, up to the moderns.
And I wonder if there is any music of the type you're identified with. You do particularly well the romantics and the moderns. Is there any of this music that you don't play for one reason or another? The Chopin, for example, you've done so much recording of it. Are there similar things by other people, or is there any part of that literature which for some reason doesn't appeal to you? Well, the music is so vast, of course, it's hard to imagine that one could like everything equally. So of course I have my own dislikes, and even in the literature of one composer I can laugh some things and not like other things. So but I'm generally not a vegetarian or anything, I try to play, not only try to play, I like to play many different kinds of music, so to speak.
I think there are so many facets of the world, and there are so many different visions of the world, and I think it is a shame to refrain from trying to express those all different kinds of visions, and to identify yourself with so many great visions of the world. Great I mean, let's take such personalities as on one side Beethoven, on another side Chopin, and yet another Schumann, for instance, and let's take Rachman in the full, let's take Shostakovich. You know, you couldn't find more different personalities, and yet almost all of them had very much to say, or in fact all of them had much to say within different ways. Now I wouldn't dispute that Beethoven's music is probably the greatest ever composed,
and I wouldn't compare his music to Rachmaninoff's music, because the things they wanted to express were so utterly different, and they're upbringing, they're background, and of course the fact they lived in different ages also matters so much that one would like to compare this music, one would like to say that I prefer Beethoven to Rachmaninoff, I think it's ridiculous to say that, so that I feel that I should play so many different things, I'm interested in so many different things, or let's take this Prokofi 3, now let's be frank, it isn't a very great piece of music, it's a very attractive piece, that's another question, it's attractive, it's fireworks, no different colors, some beautiful sound combinations, some beautiful rhythms, but once in a while it's all right to play it,
but you know I would hate to play it for the rest of my life, but now again Prokofi 8 is an art of, for instance, is such a great piece, and I wouldn't sometimes think it was the same composer who composed this verse, and that's an art of, and I would play for a long time, many times, in a short period of time, that's a really deep piece, not only for Prokofi, but quite irrelevantly, it's a deep piece, so you know this is a subject, we could talk for a long time about it, yes I'm sure we could, and I think your point of view there is what one would expect of a man who is not only a great technician, but a very thoroughgoing musician, that's a musician's attitude, and I think it's a,
it says a lot about why you perform the way you do, a moment ago when we were talking about competitions, you said something about the nervous strain of this kind of competitive aspect, do you think nerves as a factor in a performer's life are ever really completely put aside, do you experience some nervousness before a performance? Of course I do, anticipation of a performance always puts in some special state, which I don't know whether to say it, to call it nervousness, or something, is just a unique state, and probably I could compare for instance if you have to make a speech, you will be in some kind of tension, you wouldn't say it's nervousness, because you know what you're going to do, you know what you'll
say, but it's this feeling of anticipation, that's what is important. At some other times, you know when I play a very difficult piece for the first time in my life, I just learned it in the first time publicly, well then I suppose I could decide the time, nervous, not that I would feel very nervous, probably I feel about the same, but I would decide it for the first time, it's really, you never know how it is on the platform, you know, for some difficult piece, but normally it's just a feeling of having to play a performance rather than nervousness. Well in my own experience, which I am sure is completely different, I find that once I've begun, then it's all, I forget all about it. Oh marvellous. You know what I mean? Yes, it can be, this is nervousness, this at times is the kind of nervousness that grips right here, like a fist, but when you've read your first line, then it's all right. Yes. So I think perhaps this business of anticipation is manifests itself in
various ways. Now if one were not prepared of course, it could accurately be described as nervousness or fear. Yes, well the fear is fatal. Well, wouldn't it be? Oh yes I think. Have you known performers who had gifts but who were unable to make it because of fear? Yes, of course, of course. And I don't suppose there's much that can be done about that. Don't know, maybe it's a kiatric sentiment, I don't know what else. One thing to Ragbenanov and Dr. Dahl was it? Yes. But that was different though, it wasn't fear of performances, it was a fear that he couldn't compose anymore. That's different. I'd like to shift gears a little bit and ask Mr. Ashkenaze about his departure from the Soviet Union, I believe you've been living in Britain in England since 1963. Would you speak about
the reasons which led to your change of residence? Well, the reasons are largely family reasons. We came to England, I had a tour of England in 1963 and we came all together, my wife, my son and the tour was very successful and I liked London very much and it still is probably my favourite town in the world. And my wife's parents live in London too and they've been living there for now 20 years or even more. And my wife's musical education was in London, she lived there in fact a major part of her life. And we found that it would be very convenient to sort of centre by concert activities there, they have the base there. And that's how we stayed there. I was of course very anxious to see to the fact that I have congratulations
my country's authorities. So I am still a Soviet citizen and we went to Moscow shortly after we decided to stay in London. But unfortunately I couldn't fix everything too well. So although I remain a Soviet citizen I am afraid that I can't go back to Russia, in fact I haven't been back to Russia for five years, because you can never be certain that you can leave the country at your own will. That's the system, that's the law, you can't do anything about it. So I lived in England for five years. By the way now we moved to Iceland, my wife is Icelandic. And since last May we've been living in Iceland. Reykjavik? Reykjavik, yes yes. Well I didn't know, so tell us a little more about that, will you? Yes, I'll
tell you everything about Iceland. I think it's one of the most marvellous countries. It's a very small country, it's an island, it is not above the Arctic Circle, in fact it's below, so it doesn't even touch the island of Iceland. And Gulf Stream goes around the island so the climate is mild. And in fact the winter there is not colder than here and probably many citizens milder than here in Chicago. So it's not continental climate. The island itself is a little bit bigger than the island of Ireland, so you can guess this size. The population is small, it's 200,000 only. And Reykjavik has 90,000. And they have
an orchestra too. They do, they have an orchestra which is very good for a country of that size. I played with them, I enjoyed playing with them. Isn't this a rather marked change for you who I'm sure you have no recollection of your early life when you were not living in Moscow, which is a great city. And then you move to London, another great city. This appeals to you because it is a smaller and different situation. Iceland, I mean Iceland? Yes, yeah. And Reykjavik. How's it supposed to Russia? No, to London. To a great city. Oh, to a great city. So a large city where one would think there would be advantages from the point of view of musical performances and the sort of thing. Yes, of course, I got your question. I first
thought whether you want me to talk about differences between Russia and the West. Oh, no, no, no. If you want, I can tell you. Well fine, I would be interested in hearing that, but that isn't what I was driving at with this question. Well, yes, with the reason why we moved to Iceland was because we spent too much time in large cities. You know, all year round, I play either in London or Paris or New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, et cetera. And in fact, we spent so much time in big towns where we are in the center of all possible musical activities or cultural activities, that that little amount of time that we can spend with our children at what we can call home, we wanted to spend in a quiet place and not again in another large town like London. That was the reason why we moved to Iceland. You know, to say that I live in Iceland is a figurative expression, of course, because I travel 11 months of the year and I have one month
holidays. We don't stay for holidays in Iceland, we go south. But in those 11 months of my traveling, we will try now to spend as much time as possible in Iceland. It can be four or five days at a time or lucky a week at a time. And of course, over Christmas or Easter when you don't play. So, and in some, it could be a few weeks of year, but those few weeks will be really relaxed. And is your home in the country or in the city? In Reykjavík? In Reykjavík itself. It's not in the center, of course, because even in Reykjavík, even in the center, it can be quite noisy. So we're in the quiet suburban area. Well, now let's get back to the other thing, which you suggested. And it suggests to me a question, which I think it would be interesting to hear, from a musicianís point of view rather than an essentially political point of view, what are the differences between life in the West and life in Soviet Russia?
Yes. Well, from my own point of view, I could only say that I wouldn't like now to change my life from living in the West to living in Russia. The thing is that I feel my own master in the West, very much. And you see, you can't really separate it very much from the political aspect, because the whole system in Russia is centered on making an individual feel a part of a collective. So, in fact, it has been tried and is being tried all the time to impose this feeling on individual that he shouldn't decide anything by himself, and should just think that he should be ordered to do something which what is in the interest of people around him, which you see, which I think is right that you shouldn't do something that is harmful to your neighbor or to
people around you, but I think you should decide on your own will and it shouldn't be imposed on you. But when it's imposed on you, it goes, of course, all the way to not letting you do what you want to do. That's inevitable when you extend some even truth to its limit, it becomes a verse of the truth. So, that's how it can be in a socialist system. Now, as opposed to the West, where you're your own master, your individual, which can be also very bad, because you can become such an egoist, you forget about your neighbors, you know, in the purely Christian way too. So, I feel much better here because I can plan my trips when I want to play what I want to play and what orchestra I want to play just as I feel, and I can travel all around the world,
except that I don't dare go behind the iron curtain now, but I can plan my trips just as I want. No, you don't visit any of the iron curtain countries. No, but otherwise I have no restrictions. You see, in Russia, you can't go abroad, unless the state organization, which is called Ghost Concert, says that now you go to play three concerts in Bulgaria, that whatever you say you have to go, maybe it's no good with your plans, your development, or you have to go. Oh, now you have to go for three months to Australia and whatever you say you have to go. Other times when you feel like you would like to go, nothing can be done. So, I feel my own master, that's the most important. Yes. Would that kind of direction from authority pertain also to such things as choice of repertoire? No, no, no, no, repertoire. Except that, of course, as any country, they always try to insist that you play some Soviet works in your repertoire. But it's the same here. You know,
when Bar and Johnny's or Van Kleven go to Russia, a state department asks them to play some American piece, that's only normal. I don't see any difference. As a boy in the Soviet Union, did you have any musical heroes? As a boy, I had, I had my musical heroes. They changed from here to here. I was in Lavalczykovsky, and I was in Skrabin. They don't like mine enough, and I can't, you can't them all. As performers, I had everybody to, I don't know, for Horowitz, of course, and Gilles and Richter, whoever, you know, so many here. Did you come to know Shostakovich personally? Yes, I met him a few times. I played for him. He's trio, piano trio with two of my colleagues. He was very, very helpful, very kind, very charming person.
The reason I asked is that I wondered if you had, from this personal contact, some of the sense that many of us have had, that this lack of freedom has been detrimental to Shostakovich development as a composer. It has made his output at times somewhat spotty. I couldn't comment on this. I simply don't know him well enough. I could guess just as much as you can, and my, my guess is very often, is that probably he's a, you see, I know only one thing that he's a very honest person, very sincere person, and probably he has his own doubts and hesitations. Conflict, yes. That's the right word, yes. And being a very honest person, he probably expresses it all the time, on which side of his conflict he's at the moment, you see. He became a member of
the Communist Party, you know that. And I can't imagine he would do this honestly, probably he felt very honest about this. Then he wrote this symphony in 1905, and then Lenin symphony. Well, again, I can't imagine him doing this honestly. And again, he wrote the 13th symphony, which got him back in the hot water. Yes, so to speak. Yes. Which is a daring piece, but it's at least by textual content, and not just by the textual content, but by the way, he expresses the textual content in his music, which is, you know, most revealing of all. And again, that was done most honestly, but maybe those feelings are much stronger than those that he expresses in his sort of official symphonies. Well, I can't imagine him doing anything dishonestly. That's the only thing I can say. Would you say the same thing of Prokofiev? For example, there have been writers who suggested that perhaps the 7th symphony was a kind of capitulation. And would you think this is possible, or would it have been simply a further extension
of his natural bent toward a kind of lyricism that is manifest in most of his work? And in this piece, perhaps, just is carried another step forward? Yes, I will agree with you that this piece is a really lightweight piece, and doesn't really. He's not essential Prokofiev at all. But how could I comment? I never even met the man. I only read his biography and I made his wife. I really couldn't say anything. Maybe he was really bent over it, or maybe he developed to such an extent that he was his natural piece. I don't know. And it could be one or the other. Yeah, it's impossible to say. What was the first piece you recorded? Do you recall? I remember that I was recording for the radio when I was 9 or 10. I remember I recorded a
Mozart concert in a major for a date. Yes, and it was 11, I think, or something. You know, Mr. Hashkanazi, you're a veteran at this whole business in spite of your relative youth. What, let's talk some more about those kinds of pieces. Do you recall the work with which you won the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium competition back in 56? That was least piano concert number one. And then I played Prokofiev 7th, not a second and third movement because the time limit. And then every competitor had to play new piece by a Belgian composer. That's the rule of the competition. But that's always the case. Yes, concerted by a certain day for say.
It was a very unattractive piece. Are you given that piece after you arrive in Brussels and you learn it during... Yes, the 9 days before you play your final round. You're given this score of that piece and you have to learn it in 9 days. At the present time, as you travel all over the world, concertizing, how do you keep adding to your repertoire? That is a continuous process. I practice between my appearances, between my travels. As a matter of fact, I'll go practice now to learn a new piece, so it's a continuous process. And I adapt as soon as I feel that I'm ready to play something new. You practice in your hotel here? No, I go to a friend. I'd like to ask Mr. Ashunazi about his work with orchestras and conductors. Yes. Normally, you assume that the collaboration between soloists and conductors is going to be
that you work things out together, give and take. What is your experience here in rehearsing concertos for performance? Well, you see, it's when it's given take, it's marvelous when it is and you try to make the best of it. And that depends again on what kind of a conductor it is. And it depends very much on what kind of a person conductor is. You know, I always know that I can't ask this conductor as a person to do something for me. And some other people I just can't because I know I'll offend them or they feel tight. And if I suggest anything that is not according to his ideas, that you'll get nasty even. So, it's always different. And I always try to make the best of it, that's all. When are these decisions made as to how a particular passage is going to be played, the tempo, the dynamic level and so on? When there is time, we try to do it before
the orchestral rehearsal. Otherwise, just when we rehearsed. Would you say this is a problem which comes up with any kind of frequency, this inability to agree completely? It can happen often, of course. Yes, it can happen quite often. When I feel that I better don't alienate the conductor to me and just let it as it is, although I feel it's not good for me. I live it like this and I'll try to do what I can when I play. So, try to force my way when I can do it. Because it's even worse to alienate the conductor and then he won't do a thing for you and he'll ruin even when you want to do something. You see? The chances though you've had the experience. Of course, I had all kind of experiences. But especially when I play with my friends, those that could call my friends with whom I spend time, not just playing, but just being together. I don't know, Zubin Meta or Colin
Davies, you know, closer to my generation or Andre Previn, let's say. He's from Kertus. Kertus, yes. I know that I can say anything, that I can argue, that I can even say something bad to them. Well, then we'll always be right. Would you say then that, generally speaking, you might have a greater rapport with younger conductors than with older conductors? Or is it impossible to generalize this? No, it would be impossible to generalize, of course. I simply, it's personally easier when you're about the same age, you know. Easier to communicate? Yes, it's easier. You can use any expression you want. You can, you know, you know, sort of one and the same group. It's easier to communicate. But it isn't necessarily the best thing. It can be with, you know, old and respectful colleagues of mine, sometimes better than the young, obviously. Yeah. Mr. Ashkenazi, as a young artist who has
now established himself as a very successful artist, you're not one who could be considered on his way up. You're here. What advice would you give to the young person who aspires to a career in music? Oh, you're asking me to make a statement. Well, yes. So many sides and so many different things you would like to say. It's impossible. I could say one of the most important things is to be honest in your attitude to music and be honest with yourself as a person. And I could give this advice to be that. Well, we thank you very much. This has been a most interesting conversation and we thank you for joining us here, Aaron and I. We will look forward to having you back in
Chicago. It's great pleasure. Thank you very much. Thank you. I enjoy it tremendously. This has been a conversation with the talented young pianist, Vladimir Ashkenazi, participating where Aaron Parsons, professor of music theory at Northwestern University School of Music, and program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and George Stone, program director of Zenith Radio Corporations, radio station, W-E-F-M. This is the National Educational Radio Network. Thank you very much.
A conversation with...
Vladimir Ahskenazy
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-nv99b56r).
No description available
Media type
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 70-SUPPL (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 01:00:00?
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “A conversation with...; Vladimir Ahskenazy,” 1968-12-06, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 8, 2023,
MLA: “A conversation with...; Vladimir Ahskenazy.” 1968-12-06. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 8, 2023. <>.
APA: A conversation with...; Vladimir Ahskenazy. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from