Hilversum, 25 April 2005
Meeting Vladimir Ashkenazy for an interview can seem a daunting task. How to squeeze in an appointment in his very busy schedule? After his concert in Amsterdam in July 2004 with the NHK Symphony Orchestra he was willing, but immediately asked: “The question is when and where?” Thankfully, he came with a solution himself: “I will be in Hilversum in the Netherlands to record a CD at the end of April 2005.” Willem Boone and Jeroen Vonhögen spoke with Vladimir Ashkenazy, who was recording Respighi with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in one of the Dutch radio studios in Hilversum. The interview took place in the canteen, where the conductor and pianist had lunch, together with his wife Dody.
Willem Boone (WB): If I look at your achievements, the number of records you have made, the concerts for many decades both as a pianist and a conductor, the amount of works you have played, it is simply mind-boggling. Where do you get the energy from to do all this?
Vladimir Ashkenazy (VA): From my parents, I suppose (laughs)... Let me get my wife, she is lost (walks away and comes back with his wife Dody)
WB: Are you indeed such a well-organized person as they say? Someone has said: “If you give Ashkenazy one hour, he’ll work for two hours”
VA: People talk too much, I don’t know...
Dody Ashkenazy (DA): Yes, you are extremely organized!
WB: Are you a quick learner?
VA: Fortunately, yes, I am, but many people are, that’s nothing special... All my friends are quick learners. I am a quick sight-reader, that’s a gift.
WB: I am reminded of a Dutch conductor, who does a lot of music on period instruments, Frans Brüggen. He once said he always heard music in his head, even when talking to someone, for instance the first movement of a Haydn Symphony at the beginning of an interview and half an hour later he heard the last movement.... What about you, do you always hear music in your head?
VA: No, when you interview me, I think of what you are saying!
WB: In the past, you conducted several substantive projects at the same time, such as the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, all the Chopin piano works and the Mozart piano concertos. Let’s take Beethoven, you also played all his concertos, the violin and cello sonatas, the piano trios. Is it necessary for you to know the entire output of a composer?
VA: Yes, of course it is, but the main reason was that both Decca and myself were interested in these projects. It is a challenge to play a lot of music.
WB: Do you read correspondance and biographies of composers to know more about them?
VA: Sometimes, you basically find out that they too were human beings. They were gifted, but they had problems too. It can be informative, for instance I found out that Beethoven had such an incredible warm heart, the way he helped his nephew.... but reading biographies doesn’t always help you to play better...
WB: Have you ever thought of visiting the room where Schubert lived in order to understand his music?
VA: The music speaks for itself, biographies only confirm what you find in the music. You have to understand music by itself.
WB: I’d like to talk about a few things that strike me when I listen to your piano playing. One of the things is that you are not only a great technician and an architect, but also a sculpter. You are always shaping the sound, is that something you are conciously working on?
VA (surprised): I don’t know, I don’t comment on my own activities!
WB: You are one of the most prolific recording artists, may I conclude that you obviously feel at home in a recording studio?
VA: Yes, it’s interesting and good to listen to how terrible you are. You can try to improve....
WB: You said in an interview not too long ago that you probably recorded too much, yet you are still doing it, why is that?
VA: It’s my life, if I am asked to record, I do it. It’s fun and I just love music so much. I also have a big record collection.
WB: How many records do you have?
VA: A few thousand CD’s
WB: Do you have time to listen to CD’s?
VA: It’s not that I always want to listen to all of them, but I like to have things when I need them.
WB: There are very few live recordings of yours, are you against it?
VA; No, I am not against it, but you don’t achieve the same result in concert as in a recording studio. A live recording is seldom perfect.
WB: Can you achieve spontaneity in a studio?
VA: Of course you can, otherwise there is no point. Music can’t be just clinical!
WB: Which role do recordings have in your life, do you want to document certain stages throughout your career?
VA: No, I don’t listen to my CD’s, if I am asked to record things, I do it.
WB: Why did you choose to re-record a lot of things?
VA: You try to improve things..
WB: There is something that strikes me in your recordings, particularly those from the 70’s and 80’s, they sound slightly agressive and very closely miked. Is that on your request?
VA: I have no idea what you are talking about, I have no answer to it..(asks his wife)
DA: He usually is not very particular about getting a certain sound, but in recordings from the 60’s, the sound used to be very muted with the piano in the background. Maybe Decca got complaints about that and changed things? The only thing he basically asks when he is in a studio is: “Can we record? “
WB: Do you listen to tapes after you recorded?
VA: Yes, I have to
WB: Is that painful to you?
VA: No, normally, it’s OK.
WB: Did/do you have carte blanche from Decca?
VA: I have/had a wide choice, normally they agreed with a lot of things I asked. Things are difficult now, because the market is low.
WB: Suppose you would have asked to play piano works by Dvorak or Kodaly, would Decca have agreed?
VA: They have other pianists too, but I had a good choice, I can’t complain. There were priorities though, such as the Beethoven sonatas. The most important is that I was able to play great music, I have been lucky to record the basic repertoire.
WB: An exclusive recording contract must have been a powerful back up for your career, how should young pianists make a career nowadays when contracts are being constantly discontinued?
VA: I don’t know, life changes, there are no prescriptions...
WB: You said in a public interview before your concert in Amsterdam in August
Last year that you hardly played the piano in public any more..
VA; No, I didn’t say that, I said I played much less, but I still practice every day and learn a lot of repertoire.
WB: And do you still play piano concertos?
VA: Yes, I direct Mozart and Beethoven concertos from the keyboard.
WB: And you are still recording solo repertoire, some of it being fiendishly difficult, e.g the Rachmaninov transcriptions. Would you still be able to play that in recitals?
VA: I don’t play recitals any more, I have no time.
WB: When did you stop giving recitals?
VA:About three years ago.
WB: I attended a few rounds of the Liszt competition in Utrecht earlier this month, where pianists had to play, among other things, the first Mephisto waltz. I can’t remember one memorable performance, but when I came home and listened to your disc, I couldn’t believe how you played those treacherous jumps at such awesome speed. Was that “difficult” to you?
VA: It’s slavery and a gift (laughs)
WB: You have of course worked with many conductors. Was there any conductor from whom you really learnt things that were of use when you took up conducting yourself?
VA: It’s difficult to say how much you can learn..
WB: You must have learnt things when you watched them?
VA: I couldn’t watch them, I was to busy to learn, when I had to play! In the end, you can’t imitate, you have to do your own thing. You get ideas and you try to work them out, you try this or that and try not to do anything stupid. Klemperer already said (Ashkenazy quite funnily imitates how the great conductor spoke when he was paralyzed) “You can’t teach someone to be a conductor”
WB: One of my favourite recordings is your first reading of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto with Kyrill Kondrashin. Do you remember him?
VA: (smiles), yes, I do!
WB: I have the impression that he is a rather underrated conductor, was he famous in Russia at the time?
VA: Yes, I think so, he was great.
WB: Are there any pianists with whom you particularly enjoy working?
VA: I like many pianists, as a conductor, I accompanied many colleagues, Pollini, Zimerman, Lupu, Perahia, Richter...
WB: Did you work with Argerich?
VA: Yes, I did, she’s a very warm person
WB: Isn’t it difficult to keep up with her?
VA: No, she is very easy to work with!
WB: Have you never considered playing duos with her? She works with so many pianists!
VA: Yes, I know that, but never thought of working with her as a piano duo
WB: Your colleague Zoltan Kocsis played and conducted Liszt’s first concerto from the keyboard and the conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos even did Prokofiev’s third piano concerto in this double role. Is that the limit of what you can do both as a soloist/conductor?
VA: You can do anything if you have enough rehearsal time, but playing and conducting Liszt and Prokofiev is not always advisable..
WB: Isn’t that the problem nowadays that you don’t get enough rehearsal time? Zimerman complained about that last year!
VA: Well, then you have to do it in one rehearsal!
WB: I have a few questions about some composers, you announced last year a recording of Bach’s Wohltemparierte Klavier. Is that correct?
VA: Yes, I just finished that.
WB: You said previously you were in awe of Bach, but somehow afraid to tackle his music, what made you change your mind?
VA: I am still afraid and still in awe, but I like challenges. And you know, I got used to playing many voices at the same time... I think it’s not so bad, some of them were really well played..
WB: Does it probably have something to do with your traversal of the complete Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovitch?
VA: O no, they are so different!
WB: Did you ever hear Shostakovitch as a pianist?
VA: No, I didn’t, but he wasn’t a good pianist, he never practized. There is a recording where he played his piano concertos and it isn’t very good. When he was young, he used to be better and even did silent films.
WB: You have said more than once that you dislike Liszt
VA: Yes, but some of it is fantastic! He was a strange man... (thinks).. he had a controversial character. On the one hand, there was the purity of expression, but something went against it. Sometimes, he was fantastically inspired, for instance in the B-minor sonata or the first Mephisto waltz, but a lot of his music is over the top. But what counts; he was incredibly devoted to music, he taught so many musicians and promoted Beethoven on the piano. And his imagination was amazing.
Jeroen Vonhögen (JV): What do you think of his late piano works?
VA: There is an attempt to get to another level, but he was at his best in his diabolical works , the first Mephisto waltz is fantastic.
WB: And what about the Totentanz?
VA: Mephisto is better! (laughs)
WB: And the concertos? You did his first concerto when you won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1956
VA: They are allright, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.
JV: Did you do the symphonic poems as a conductor?
VA: No, I never conducted any symphonic works by Liszt. Nobody asked me to do that, but I would like to do the Faust Symphony. Maybe it’s not totally convincing, but it’s a genuine piece. Liszt was definitely a genius.
WB: Is Chopin more your man?
VA: Ah, unbelievable! (looks up) He was really economical in his music. His late music is beyond comment, both on a spiritual and musical level. It’s organic, it makes sense. He was not going ahead of his time for the sake of going ahead. He was unlike Schönberg with his dodecaphonic music. I don’t like Schönberg’s attitude to art. Alban Berg was gifted though..
JV: Do you remember the first time you heard Chopin’s music?
VA: No, I don’t...
WB: There is one work though, which you didn’t include in your set of complete Chopin works, the Andante spianato and grande Polonaise brillante.
VA: That’s a brillant piece of a young composer, I like it, but it’s mostly played with orchestra. I didn’t get to it, I apologize for my omission, but it was not delibirate... there are many great recordings, they won’t miss mine...
JV: You also played Chopin’s first sonata, which is a rare piece
VA: It’s a student piece, Chopin was about fourteen or fifteen years old when he composed it. It’s embryonic and not very good.
JV: Was there any modern music dedicated to you?
VA: Yes, John Ogdon composed five Preludes for me, I played them.
JV: Does that make them special?
VA: No, but they are very idiomatic musically! Rautavaara also composed a piano concerto for me, that’s a very interesting sound world. And Andre Previn also composed a concerto for me.
WB: Didn’t he say when you played his Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to you, “It is a difficult piece, but the son of a bitch (Ashkenazy) read right through it”?
VA: No, that’s not true, Andre exaggerated my ability to learn. He is a good friend. Besides, of course it took time to learn the concerto which I liked very much. You see, that’s how legends get created. Don’t trust everything you hear! I will give you an example of how unreliable the press is. I was reading the Herald Tribune of last Monday (18 April 2005, WB) and in the section “People” I saw my name. I had been nominated conductor laureate for the season 2007-2008 of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I agreed when they asked me, because it’s a good orchestra. The newspaper wrote: “Ashkenazy heard the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time when he was eleven years old and he was so moved when he heard them do Mahler first Symphony”. Now in 1948, I was living in Russia, and at the time I had never heard of Mahler or the Liverpool Philharmonic! It appeared that the editor of the Herald Tribune confused the biographies of Sir Simon Rattle and myself! It’s not a crime, but why? Why can’t they be accurate? It’s just unprofessional to write such things!
WB: Just one of my last questions, how is your oldest son doing? He is also a pianist, isn’t he?
VA: He is fine. We just played Ravel’s La Valse on two pianos at a Steinway gala in Hamburg. He now teaches in Angoulème, in France.
WB: Isn’t it just terrible to have a father called Vladimir Ashkenazy?
VA: Yes, it’s difficult... it doesn’t help things!
WB: What are you recording in Hilversum at the moment?
VA: Respighi’s Feste Romane, a very loud piece! But the orchestra is very good!
© Willem Boone 2005