“I was very close to the Russian spirit and to Russian art,” explains Vladimir Ashkenazy. “I loved Pushkin and Lermontov. I always wanted to know everything my country offered.” In 1963 Ashkenazy left the USSR, not to return for 26 years – “I was afraid to go back in case they didn’t let me travel again” – but his career, particularly from the conductor’s podium, has always been closely linked with Russian repertoire. Before launching his series Voices of Revolution with the Philharmonia Orchestra to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Ashkenazy recalls his experiences as a young Soviet pianist, his memories of Shostakovich and his witnessing history in the making.  

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

For Ashkenazy, Shostakovich’s music inevitably reflected the political circumstances of the time, sometimes drawing official condemnation. After the 1936 Pravda editorial “Muddle instead of music” damned his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich walked a political tightrope. Later that year, the premiere of his Fourth Symphony was abruptly abandoned. “At the general rehearsal,” Ashkenazy relates, “the Leningrad Philharmonic played very well, but officials from the Composers Union and Communist Party called Shostakovich into an office and said ‘Comrade Shostakovich, we don’t think this is the right piece for our country at this time. It is not right for our society. It’s too complex.’”

Whether Shostakovich withdrew the symphony voluntarily or not is unclear, although after a play-through of the piano score, his reaction to a friend’s concern about what the Party apparatchiks would make of the work was stinging: “I don’t write for Pravda, but for myself!” Nevertheless, the newspaper Sovetskoe iskusstvo (Soviet Art) carried a notice that Shostakovich had cancelled the Fourth’s première "on the grounds that it in no way corresponds to his current creative convictions and represents for him a long-outdated creative phase" and that he planned to revise it.

No such revision took place. Although the manuscript was lost during the war, Shostakovich produced a four-hand piano version of the Fourth, drawn from the orchestral parts which had survived those 1936 rehearsals. It wasn’t until the cultural thaw that followed Stalin’s death that Shostakovich even considered a full performance of the symphony. It was finally premiered in Moscow in 1961… and Ashkenazy was present. “Can you imagine? The Fifth, Sixth and Leningrad Symphonies had already been performed and were well known, then suddenly posters appeared saying you could hear the Fourth Symphony on 30th December 1961 [25 years to the day after the premiere had been originally scheduled]. The sensation was beyond description. Every musician interested in great music came to that concert. Shostakovich was called to bow so many times on the stage it was unbelievable. The success was absolutely incredible. I was there! Lucky me!”

Ashkenazy was linked to another controversial Shostakovich symphony, the Thirteenth. It is subtitled Babi Yar, taken from the Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem which forms the text of the first movement. It landed Shostakovich in hot water. Evgeny Mravinsky, who had conducted the premieres of six Shostakovich symphonies by this time, refused to conduct Babi Yar for fear of the political consequences. In Moscow, pressure was put on Kirill Kondrashin to withdraw, but he refused. At the first performance, the government box remained significantly empty.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

Although abroad at the time of the 1962 première, on a piano tour of the United States, Ashkenazy was present early in 1963, where a revised text was presented. “I heard the third performance – a great success. I witnessed history. In fact, I played Beethoven 1 with Kondrashin in the first half of that concert! One of the reasons it was performed again after an interval of a few months was because some lines in Yevtushenko’s poems were not acceptable to the Party. In their minds, the way that Yevtushenko wrote about the Jews’ suffering at the hands of the Nazis was not enough. It had to be changed so it would be clear to the world that not only Jews suffered, but other people too. And the Russians suffered tremendously. In a way, they were right. The Nazis were anti-semitic, a sign of their ideology which they pursued wherever they could, but the Russians suffered tremendously too.”

Ashkenazy confesses that he was lucky during the war. “In 1939, we moved from Nizhny-Novgorod (then Gorky) where I was born, to Moscow, then we were evacuated when the war began. We were sent to Ekaterinburg in the Urals, then we went to Tashkent before returning to Moscow at the beginning of 1944 when the Germans were already back in western Poland.” After the war, his mother arranged his christening. “My father was Jewish but my mother was a Russian Christian. I was christened in the Orthodox Church – we didn’t exactly keep it secret, but it wasn’t something we advertised – so I always considered myself Russian, although the Jews always thought I was Jewish!” His love for Orthodox Church music inevitably drew him to Rachmaninov, another composer he has performed a lot. When asked what it is about Rachmaninov’s music that he loves so much, Ashkenazy is wary: “I’m not very good at describing music. When you try and describe music, you diminish it by trying to put it into words. You know Rachmaninov as well as I do, of course. You know that his spirit is immense. As a person, he was very generous, you can feel that in his music, in his sweeping phrases.”

“Rachmaninov composed two very long pieces for chorus – the All-Night Vigil and the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom – fantastic music, some of his best, on a higher level than Tchaikovsky’s religious music. I did conduct a little of the choral music once. I just wanted to know how does it feel to conduct the chorus in one of his religious pieces. I loved it.”

Ashkenazy rose to prominence as a pianist in the late 1950s, a difficult time for composers, but the atmosphere was much more supportive towards young performers. “The authorities were always keen to promote all aspects of a cultural nation – they often reacted very strongly to criticisms from the west that Russian culture was just Communist rubbish.” Ashkenazy famously shared first prize in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition. The first competition in 1958 had been won by an American – Van Cliburn – which put pressure on the authorities to engineer a ‘home win’ four years later.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Benjamin Ealovega | Decca
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Benjamin Ealovega | Decca

“Because the first competition went to an American, they had to be absolutely sure that the next one would be won by a Soviet, so they asked all our most prominent young pianists to participate. They asked me. I couldn’t disagree, but I didn’t need it – I had already won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels (in 1956). Why would I go into an unpredictable situation? And really, the Tchaikovsky concerto was not my piece. I love it very much but technically, pianistically, it’s not for my hands. There are so many octaves and so many chords that have to be played effortlessly and brilliantly at a very high level of dynamics. I can play a lot things – I can play a lot of Rachmaninov because it’s written in a different way – but the Tchaikovsky, that I couldn’t do very well.”

“I went to the Minister for Culture and told her I didn’t know what to do, because certain passages of Tchaikovsky 1 (you weren’t allowed to do the Second Concerto) I might not play well. She couldn’t understand it because she wasn’t a musician! What an idiot I was… she would never have understood! I couldn’t insult the Minister for Culture so I said I’d try. Anyway, I was in first place after the first two rounds (so I learned afterwards), but in the third round I played the obligatory piece quite well and the Tchaikovsky I played alright, not as effortlessly as someone like John Ogdon could play – a genius pianist with big hands – but somehow they managed to have me share the first prize with him and I was delighted.” He pauses. “I’m sure the Party was very happy.”

Footage of Ashkenazy performing the finale in the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition:

Before leaving the USSR, the young Ashkenazy met Shostakovich when he played through the Second Piano Trio. “We had prepared it well and we felt sure he would tell us something. He said, ‘Very good, thank you very much.’ And we said, ‘Dmitri Dmitriyevich, can you tell us about tempos? About something else?’ ‘No, no, it was very good. Would you like some tea?’ It was impossible to draw him into saying anything about our performance. People later told us that he was always so grateful whenever anyone played his music.” Ashkenazy chuckles quietly as he recalls the moment. “We had played quite well, you know, the right tempos and I hope with the right expression, but that’s all he said, ‘Very good. Have a cup of tea!’”

Shostakovich himself playing his Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor