Maestro who scaled heights brings celebration to city

50 years ago Ashkenazy quit Russia and made his first recording. The conductor and pianist reflects ahead of his Hong Kong concerts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 May, 2013, 4:30am

This is a major anniversary year for pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, the 75-year-old maestro who conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra tomorrow and on Saturday.

First of all, it marks the 50th anniversary of his debut recording with Decca. In March 1963, he recorded Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Anatole Fistoulari.

In the ensuing five decades, the Russian-born pianist and, since 1977, conductor, became one of the most recorded artists in the classical music industry. A 50-CD box-set, Ashkenazy: 50 Years on Decca, was released early this year to honour his extraordinary achievements. Achievements that the maestro himself brushes aside. "I never try to achieve anything, and I don't remember every recording I did," he says.

While classical music fans revere his recordings, especially his bestselling Russian and Nordic works, the performer says he never listens to them.

"I have no time for that," he says. "Time is very precious. I have very little time to listen to my own recordings. What's the point of doing that when I can't change anything that I don't like? So it's a waste of time."

It was also 50 years ago - July 2, 1963, to be precise - that Ashkenazy decided to leave Russia for good and settle in London with his Icelandic wife and their son.

It was a move that generated headlines in the West, given the fact that Ashkenazy had become the first Russian to win the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition just a year before. His co-winner was the late John Ogdon, a Briton.

The cold-war emigration went smoothly thanks to one person, then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who remembered the young pianist in his memoir. "Let's give Ashkenazy permission to live in England however long he wants. That way he will always be able to return to the Soviet Union," he wrote.

But the Soviet leader, who died in 1971, did not see the pianist return. It was not until 1989 that Ashkenazy went home, after 26 years, during which his family had expanded from three to seven and moved to Iceland, then Switzerland.

"Gorbachev was in power then and things were different. So I returned and stayed at my father's old apartment in Moscow. I invited Gorbachev to come but his secretary came instead and expressed regrets that the general secretary could not come because he was very busy."

When Ashkenazy watched the news the next morning, he understood the absence. "The Berlin Wall fell [the previous] night. No wonder he was very busy. It's unbelievable for that to happen on my first visit after so many years," says Ashkenazy.

Of present-day Russia, he says: "It's been somewhat vulgarised with lots of shops for people with money and lots of people with no money."

But he is pleased that music and arts, such as ballet, remain at a very high level. "Those are the riches of the country," he says.

Ashkenazy was one of the first top Western artists to visit China after the calamitous Cultural Revolution. And his interest in the country has never died.

"People there are gradually appreciating our great music culture. It's still a very new experience to go to a concert," he says.

"It's a slow process but I am glad that the Chinese government is doing that, which is a very positive thing for people's spiritual entity to grow."

Last year, he toured with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing at "fantastic concert halls" in Beijing and Shanghai.

"There was a lot of genuine interest and our concerts were all sold out. Of course, they don't know our great music culture very well. They don't know how to behave in the concert hall. Sometimes they talk during the concert. But once they know it, they follow the rule. So it's improving all the time," he says.

Ashkenazy has "very fond memories" of conducting the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra playing Mahler's Tenth Symphony. "They were very committed, following my beat with expressions I like very much. I enjoyed it a lot," he says.

Pianist Lang Lang and conductor Yu Long particularly earned his respect when they worked together. And, the maestro adds: "The music conservatories are very busy, and many children are interested in studying music. It's tremendous, and it's bound to create good results."

Ashkenazy also serves as music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, and conductor-laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the NHK orchestra in Japan, and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

His ongoing recording contracts include the entire solo piano works of Rachmaninov and works by Bach and the contemporary British composer Howard Blake.

"It takes a carefully planned and conceived schedule for me to meet my commitments in conducting and recording. You may not believe this: I have a very good Christmas holiday from mid-December to early February. Then I keep the summer months of July and August practically free. So every year I have four months of free time to practise and learn new repertoires."

Despite the recent financial crises, Ashkenazy remains upbeat about the future of what he calls "one of the highest expressions of mankind". "It's not easy. Let's keep our fingers crossed it will never die."