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Ashkenazy was born in Gorky, Soviet Union (now Nizhny Novgorod, Russia), to the pianist and composer David Ashkenazi and to the actress Yevstolia Grigorievna, born Plotnova. His father was Jewish and his mother was the daughter of a family of Russian Orthodox peasants.
He began playing piano at the age of six. He was accepted to the Central Music School at age eight studying with Anaida Sumbatyan. Ashkenazy attended the Moscow Conservatory where he studied with Lev Oborin and Boris Zemliansky. He won second prize in the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1955 and the first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels in 1956. He shared the first prize in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition with British pianist John Ogdon. As a student, like many in that period, he was harassed by the KGB to become an "informer". He did not really cooperate, and despite pressures from the authorities. In 1961 he married the Iceland-born Þórunn Jóhannsdóttir, who studied piano at the Moscow Conservatoire. To marry Ashkenazy, Þórunn was forced to give up her Icelandic citizenship and declare that she wanted to live in the USSR.
After numerous bureaucratic procedures, the Soviet authorities several times agreed to the Ashkenazys to go to the West for musical performances and for visits to his parents-in-law with their first grandson. In his memoirs, Khrushchev recollects that Ashkenazy had married an Englishwoman [sic] and on a visit to London refused to go back to the Soviet Union. Khrushchev mentions that Ashkenazy then went to the Soviet Embassy in London and asked what to do, who in turn referred the matter to Moscow. Khrushchev claims to have been of the opinion that to require Ashkenazy to return to the USSR would have made him an 'Anti-Soviet'. He further claims that this was a good example of an artist being able to come and go in and out of the USSR freely, which Ashkenazy himself was a gross 'distortion of the truth'[clarification needed]. [Khrushchev Remembers, London 1971 p521] In 1963 Ashkenazy decided to leave the USSR permanently, establishing residence first in London where his wife's parents lived.
The couple moved to Iceland in 1968, and Ashkenazy became an Icelandic citizen in 1972. In 1970, he helped to found the Reykjavík Arts Festival, of which he remains Honorary President. In 1978, the couple and their five children (Vladimir Stefan, Nadia Liza, Dimitri Thor, Sonia Edda, and Alexandra Inga), moved to Meggen, Switzerland. His eldest son Vladimir, nicknamed 'Vovka', is a pianist, and his second son Dimitri is a clarinetist.
Ashkenazy has recorded a wide range of piano repertoire, both solo works and concerti. His recordings include:
His concerto recordings include:
(a) with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra
(b) with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra
In public performances, Ashkenazy was known for rejecting a tie and button shirt in favor of a white turtleneck; and for running (not walking) onstage and offstage to the piano. He has also performed and recorded chamber music.
Midway through his pianistic career, Ashkenazy branched into conducting. In Europe, Ashkenazy was principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1987 to 1994, and of the Czech Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003. Ashkenazy is also conductor laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor laureate of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra. In July 2013 he became director of the Accademia Pianistica Internazionale di Imola, succeeding its founder and director Franco Scala. His recordings as a conductor include complete cycles of the symphonies of Sibelius and of Rachmaninoff, as well as orchestral works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky.
In other media, Ashkenazy has also appeared in several films on music by Christopher Nupen. He has also made his own orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1982). There has been a CD produced of his works named 'The Art of Ashkenazy', and a biography of Ashkenazy, 'Beyond Frontiers', has been published.
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