Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy (born July 6, 1937) is a Russian-Icelandic conductor and pianist. Since 1972 he has been a citizen of Iceland, his wife's country of birth. In 1970, he helped to found the Reykjavík Arts Festival, of which he remains Honorary President. Since 1978, because of his many obligations in Europe, he and his family have resided in Meggen, near Lucerne in Switzerland. He is currently Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
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 and, showing prodigious talent, was accepted to the Central Music School at age eight studying with Anaida Sumbatyan. Ashkenazy went on to graduate from the Moscow Conservatory where he studied with Lev Oborin and Boris Zemliansky, winning 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 married the Iceland-born Þórunn Jóhannsdóttir, who studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory. 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, but in 1963 Ashkenazy decided to leave the USSR permanently, establishing residence first in London where his wife's parents lived.
Ashkenazy moved to Iceland with his wife in 1968 and became an Icelandic citizen in 1972. In 1978, the couple, with five children (Vladimir Stefan, Nadia Liza, Dimitri Thor, Sonia Edda, and Alexandra Inga), moved to Switzerland.
Vladimir Ashkenazy is renowned for his performances of Romantic and Russian composers.
He has recorded Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier; the complete 24 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich; the complete sonatas by Beethoven and Scriabin; the complete works for piano by Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Schumann; and seven of Liszt's 12 Transcendental Études. He has also recorded the piano concertos of Mozart (conducting from the keyboard with the Philharmonia Orchestra); Beethoven (with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti; with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic; and conducting from the piano with the Cleveland Orchestra); Brahms (No. 1 with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra; and No. 2 with Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic); Bartók (with Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic Orchestra); Prokofiev (with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra); and Rachmaninoff (with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, and 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. He has particularly been praised for his recordings of orchestral works by Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky.
He was the principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1987 to 1994 and was principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003. He became musical director of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in 2004.
Besides these positions, Ashkenazy is conductor laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor laureate of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, with which he performs regularly.
Ashkenazy has also appeared in several Christopher Nupen music films, conducting extracts from the composer profiled, including Ottorino Respighi and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and performing at the piano.
He succeeded Gianluigi Gelmetti as the chief conductor and artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in January 2009.
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.