Exclusive Interview with Vladimir Ashkenazy: August 31, 2010
Rel. 10 Aug 2010
On Thursday, August 12 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with world-renowned pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy – whose brilliant new Decca recording of the complete Bach Partitas was just released. In this fascinating discussion, Maestro Ashkenazy discusses his approach to recording these keyboard masterworks – marked by his keen insights on interpretation, the genius of Bach’s writing, and the challenges he faced as a young Russian musician to penetrate into the music of such an “archetypal” Western composer. The two also discussed the Maestro’s celebrated conducting career, both his current activities as Principal Conductor with the Sydney Symphony, and his initial ascent – some 40 years ago – into this aspect of his amazing musical career. Don’t miss the reflections of one of classical music’s most gifted artists.
As an added bonus, Classical Archives and Decca Records are very pleased to offer a special promotion on 10 classic recordings of internationally acclaimed pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, featuring piano solo music and piano concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, and Shostakovich. For a limited time, these albums are available at 20% off the normal retail price. To build your essential Vladimir Ashkenazy collection, click "Special Albums Promotion" below.
“As long as the musical line is clear, and the ‘genius’ of the line is there, I think we shouldn’t disturb it too much, or embellish it too much. I really like very clear lines, generally, in my musical interpretation – so that’s why I use very few embellishments, as little as possible; because Bach’s music is so good, you don’t need to embellish it.”
– Vladimir Ashkenazy
Nolan Gasser: I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to chat with you regarding what may be called the musical event of the week, if not the season – which is your new Decca recording of the complete Partitas of J.S. Bach. Now, this of course is not your first foray into recording Bach’s music – most recently in 2006 with the Well-tempered Clavier, and indeed going back to the mid-1960s with your recording of the D minor Concerto, BWV1052, and a few other works; and yet clearly Bach has not quite been the cornerstone of your output over the years. So, to get started: can you tell us what was the impetus for recording the Partitas at this point in your career?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: Well, in fact it was my record company, Decca, who first said to me, “Why don’t you do some more Bach?” – because the Preludes and Fugues [of the Well-tempered Clavier] had turned out quite well, and so they said, “Why not do some more?” And I replied, “Sure, with pleasure.” As a boy I had played two or three of the Partitas, and so I had to learn the others for this recording.
NG: Ah, so the initial call came from the label – well, then we have Decca to thank for inspiring this brilliant new recording!
Now, I was struck by a comment you once made to Christoper Nupen, in one of his films, with regard to the overwhelming emphasis on Russian culture in your music education, and a certain feeling of “inferiority” – as you said – among you and your contemporaries when it came to performing such “archetypal” Western composers as Bach and Mozart. Can you talk a bit more about this sensibility you had as a young man – did you in fact play much Bach as a student under Anaida Sumbatyan and Lev Oborin, for example?
VA: Yes, I played quite a lot of Bach as a student, but it’s also true that in Russia the focus on Russian culture is so overwhelming, and so all-embracing, that it’s not easy – especially for a child or a young person who is starting in music – to try to detach one’s self from the incredible wealth and presence of Russian musical culture, which of course relates to other areas of culture as well. That is, it’s not easy in Russia to distance one’s self from this strong Russian mentality, which is a particular attitude toward life, toward art, and toward music that is on totally different level – I’m not saying a higher or lower level, but rather a totally different world-view than elsewhere. Some people do succeed, but some don’t – even though they may desire very much to move into another direction; it’s a very complex question involving a particular mental and emotional attitude toward life and art.
So, that’s why I found it was very difficult for me, especially at that time, to understand exactly how I should approach Western music; but I’m such a character who never gives up, and who tries to understand something as well as I possibly can – and to try to do justice to a certain part of the repertory, as with Bach in this particular case.
NG: Well, that certainly makes sense; and indeed, I’ve interviewed musicians from various cultures, who commonly reveal how they resonate most directly with music from their own country or background – even so with American musicians.
VA: Yes, but I think that people in the United States are much luckier, in way. I know the history of your country very well, and so I know how many different influences there were – spiritually, culturally, etc. – starting from the 17th century; and so there is this tremendous choice of cultures and attitudes in America. Western culture was, of course, present there from the very beginning; and then when Germans started to immigrate to America, it produced new and different Western attitudes – though not necessarily Eastern European attitudes. But your country has lots of choices, and you can choose and find your own way; and that’s why there are so many different and valid types of music in your country. This is not the case in Russia.
NG: Of course, and it certainly is true that America was, and is, founded upon a diverse mix – a “melting pot” – of cultural influences; and that distinguishes it from most other countries.
Now, the two composers you mentioned with regard to this feeling of distance toward Western culture were Bach and Mozart. Clearly, this has long been overcome by you with regard to Mozart – as you’ve recorded his complete piano concertos and several sonatas; but was there something more daunting about Bach, and something specific you needed to prepare for before tackling more of his music?
VA: That’s a complicated question… basically – recording this music was a challenge, of course, but one that I wanted to face. It was a difficult, but at the same time, a very interesting thing for me to do; and I felt that if I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t do it at all.
NG: That makes sense, and of course, we’re glad you did!
I have a couple of question in regards to your actual preparation for making the recording of the Partitas. First, when modern players interpret the music of Bach, and the Baroque era in general, they often pursue a certain level of historic grounding – of performance practice: with regard to ornamentation, dynamics, tempi – even what instruments to play on. What has been your approach in dealing with some of these historically based issues as you prepared to record the Partitas?
VA: Well, first of all, people sometimes make a bit too much of how much they know – or are supposed to know, or they invent what they know… We can’t really know how this music sounded in Bach’s day, so it’s all a question of speculation, and a person’s interpretation of the spirit of the time. Besides, as you know, Bach’s music was neglected for many decades after he died, and nobody cared very about it until the middle of the 19th century.
NG: Right, not before Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion [in 1829].
VA: Yes, and I don’t know if anyone really knew, or had a very clear idea, about the embellishments and things like that – how Bach played them, or how they “should” have been played, you know? So, it’s a matter of interpretation. As long as the musical line is there, and there’s no insult to the composer – who probably played these works slightly differently each time, with different embellishments, and so on – there is no problem. And why should there be a definite rule about this? However, there are certain borders, certain kind of limitations, where you shouldn’t do too much or too little of such things.
As long as the musical line is clear, and the “genius” of the line is there, I think we shouldn’t disturb it too much, or embellish it too much. I really like very clear lines, generally, in my musical interpretation – so that’s why I use very few embellishments; as little as possible, because Bach’s music is so good, you don’t need to embellish it.
NG: Well, I certainly concur with that, and I’ve had the pleasure of listening to your performances over the last few days – and have been struck by your very clean approach to ornamentation. Clearly, some interpreters take the historical research very seriously, and do all kinds of studies of performance manuals and treatise from the period; and as a result, have a more assertive approach to ornamentation.
VA: Yes, but you know: I feel that embellishment is like entertainment. And with Bach, do we really need to “entertain” in this way? I don’t think so.
NG: I like very much what you’ve said about keeping the “genius” there, the clarity of Bach’s line, and making sure that its “genius” is there – I think that’s a very good way of thinking about it.
The second question I have in terms of preparation is this: I would imagine that as you’ve readied to perform or record the works of Beethoven or Schumann or Rachmaninoff, all you’ve needed are the musical scores and the time to actually commune with them at the piano; but, again, given the peculiarities of Bach performance and the varying schools of thoughts regarding approach, phrasing, articulation, etc – I’m wondering if you spent any time reviewing the recordings of previous interpreters; and if so, whose have you been most impressed with?
VA: I remember Glenn Gould’s performances – which I liked very much; and I’ll never forget meeting with him once in Toronto – a wonderful person, a wonderful man, and an extraordinary musician; and his performances of the Partitas, of course, was wonderful to hear. I didn’t play them like that, but I just wanted to remember how he played it. You can’t play better than Gould, but I played it in my own way [laughs]. Sometimes I learned from him, but mainly I played it the way I understood it.
I also liked the recordings of Murray Perahia – who I admire very much; but unfortunately, I only heard three of his Partitas, because the other three were not released until after I made my recording.
NG: Yes, it’s pretty amazing that two such brilliant pianists have approached these great works around the same time – with you and Murray Perahia [Partitas Nos.2,3,4 – released in March, 2008; Nos.1,5,6 – released in September, 2009].
The Partitas, of course, are such a treasure trove of musical invention and profound expression – perhaps the ultimate blend of formal constraint and unbounded creativity – and it’s of course hard to claim a favorite (I’m partial to the 4th – whose “Overture” I find particularly inspiring; and the 6th, which is incredible; but I love them all). Still, I’m wondering if though the process of preparing for this recording, you came to find a particular Partita or a movement that struck you in a personal way – perhaps something you didn’t expect to feel prior to starting the process?
VA: Yes, I agree with your favorites – especially the 6th, which I had played before; it was still very difficult to “get right”, because I hadn’t played it for about thirty years. But yes, it’s a very special one, I think. Of course, all six of them are gorgeous, no question about it, but the complexity of texture is evident in the later ones, and the last one especially is quite incredible – I agree with you.
NG: Well indeed, it is unbelievable how you can listen straight to over two hours of this music, and never get bored!
VA: Unbelievable, yes it’s unbelievable!
NG: Now, on the flip side, I’m wondering if there’s any particular Partita or movement that you found particularly challenging – technically, stylistically, or in terms of capturing the right texture – in a way that kind of surprised you, or that you didn’t quite see coming?
VA: Surprisingly difficult… yes, I think the Bb Partita…
NG: Ah, the first one…
VA: Yes, pianistically – it’s not so comfortable; it’s quite difficult, I felt, with the placement of the black keys, and so forth; that is, I sometimes found it created difficult hand positions on our modern keyboard. Maybe on Bach’s keyboard it was totally different, and perhaps it was easier, but I had to do quite a lot to make it really musical, in accordance with I wanted to hear. So, I thought that was quite a physical, mechanical sort of challenge – apart from all the musical ones, of course. But, of course, all of it is difficult: everything has to be very clear – all the lines have to be clear – and that’s always a great challenge, of course.
NG: And indeed the Gigue of the Bb Partita is so well known and sprightly, that it can become a sort of weather vane for a pianist’s approach to the Partitas.
VA: Yes, this movement is lovely; but, in fact, I find it one of the easier ones in this Partita – except, of course, that you have the hands constantly crossing over each other [laughs]; yes, his keyboard was perhaps a bit easier for this Partita, but that’s not the case on ours.
NG: Well, all of this is related to another question I have – what may indeed be the “$64,000 question”: as a pianist who has tackled – and conquered – some of the most difficult piano literature ever written, what has this experience taught you about what are the most fundamental or critical challenges that needs to be overcome when it comes to approaching the music of J.S. Bach?
VA: It’s pretty simple, in a way, because we know how great he was – everybody knows it, especially every musician; and yet, when you play it again – and have to practice it every day – you discover something: you thought he was a genius, of course, but he was probably a hundred times more of a genius than you even thought! So each time you play this music, you are amazed by every single note, by his mind and by his gift – I can’t even find the right words for a man like that – for his work and his legacy. You realize that you are privileged to play this music – that’s the feeling I had.
Do you know that story about Bach asking for a raise in his salary from the Leipzig authorities? They made him wait and wait, all the while saying to him, “If you’re not happy, leave!” – can you imagine?
NG: Yes, he had one struggle with the Leipzig authorities after another – for what amounted to a few dollars a year, and all the while producing volumes of masterpieces. And, of course, he was only the third choice for the Leipzig position [after Georg Phillipp Telemann and Johann Christoph Graupner, both of whom turned it down].
VA: Right, but the delay in raising his salary was after he’d already been there for many years – and still, they kept him waiting for something like two years! Unbelievable!
NG: Well, as with Beethoven, Bach was not really writing for his time, but for posterity.
VA: Yes, of course.
NG: Well, as you say, it’s just inspiring to know that the human mind has the potential of producing such beauty.
One last question on the Partitas: you’ve clearly set an amazing precedent as a pianist to conquer complete swaths of repertoire – including the complete literature of Chopin and Schumann. Now that you’ve extended beyond the Well-tempered Clavier to include the Partitas, do you – or maybe does Decca – have any plans for you to continue with other suites – the English or French – or perhaps to that grand monument, the Goldberg Variations?
VA: Well, they did ask me to complete the Clavier-Übung, which means adding the French Overture [BWV831] and the Italian Concerto [BWV971] – so together with the Partitas, that will complete the Clavier-Übung [that is, Parts 1 and 2; Part 3 is made up of a large collection of organ works; the Goldberg Variations, BWV988 were also labeled by Bach as Clavier-Übung – literally “keyboard practice pieces” – though without a specific part number].
So, I’m thinking about it, and I hope I will do it; but at the moment I also want to complete Rachmaninov’s piano music – with two more CDs. I have never recorded the Piano Sonata No.1 [in D-, Op.28] or the Chopin Variations [Op.22], as well as some short pieces. Let me see if I can do that, and then I’ll complete the Bach Clavier-Übung [laughs].
NG: Sounds fair, and we all look forward to the completion of those recordings!
VA: Thank you.
NG: Well, I’d love to switch gears a talk a bit about that other principal part of your musical career – and that which explains your current presence in Sydney, Australia – namely, as a conductor. You are, of course, currently the Principal Conductor of the Sydney Symphony – and in the midst of a run of three programs there …
VA: Yes, and I am conducting today – in one hour’s time, actually; it’s a morning concert.
NG: Wow, in an hour – I’ll be quick [laughs]. So, how are things going with the Sydney Symphony so far?
VA: Oh, it’s a great orchestra, a world class orchestra; and the musicians are ready to do anything I ask them to do – they’re absolutely wonderful, very friendly, and highly professional. We are actually going on a European tour in a few days, and we are going to play in London at the
NG: That’s wonderful. I know that you’ve been performing in Sydney, as a pianist, going back to the 60’s, but how was it that you came to become such an active part of music life in Sydney?
VA: I didn’t do anything; I just answered the phone about five or six years ago [laughs]; they asked me, “Could you please come here to conduct all of the Sibelius symphonies?” They had never invited me to conduct anything before, and I thought “Oh, how nice.” So I came and did all the Sibelius symphonies in the period of three weeks or so, and they were fantastic, absolutely fantastic! I’d never enjoyed working so much with an orchestra that I didn’t know.
VA: And then a Japanese record company, Exton, said to me, “Oh, you’re working with the Sydney Symphony – why don’t we record something?” And I said “Okay, let’s see.” So we recorded all of Rachmaninov’s orchestral music, in November 2007. By that point, there was a feeling that maybe the symphony should invite me to become their Principal Conductor; and when they asked me, I thought, “It’s a great orchestra – so why not?” And since then we’ve recorded the major orchestral works of Elgar; and then last winter we recorded all of the Prokofiev symphonies and the piano concertos – with a very good Ukrainian pianist, Alexander Gavrylyuk. Now, our next project is the Mahler symphonies; we’ve already recorded [Symphonies] Nos. 1 and 8, and Das Lied [von der Erde]; Nos. 1 and 8 will be released very soon, because we’re going to Europe – and the orchestra decided to accompany our tour with the release of these two. And by next year, we’ll record all the other Mahler symphonies.
NG: Well, it sounds like such a wonderful situation for you: to be able to explore so much wonderful repertoire with an orchestra that you enjoy – and to which you’re helping to bring such prominence; it sounds absolutely wonderful.
VA: Yes, I’m very lucky.
NG: I next have a more general question about your conducting career: clearly, your piano activity remains robust, but conducting does seem to have taken a fair bit of prominence over the last few decades. I know that you first conducted in Iceland in 1970, initially as a guest conductor – which then began to blossom into an active career over the next ten years or so. Can you perhaps recall a particular memory or epiphany when you started thinking of conducting as not just a nice sideline, but in fact something that you needed to do more regularly – for your own self-expression as a musician?
VA: In fact, it goes much deeper: my complete connection to, and admiration for, the symphony orchestra goes back to my childhood.
NG: Right – I’ve read the story of how Richard Strauss’ Don Juan had such a big impression on you.
VA: Yes, that too, but even earlier – when I was just a boy of six or seven, I went to orchestral concerts much more than to anything else. But then I became a very successful young pianist, so it never occurred to me that I would ever conduct – it never, ever occurred to me that I would conduct! I don’t know – it seemed too complicated. But the wealth of the orchestral repertoire that I absorbed – because I was interested in it – was so enormous, from Mozart to Shostakovich. I had so much of this music in my system, you know? And then when I started to conduct, it was just an accident: once, I conducted in a suburb of London, and it was terrible – because, of course, I couldn’t conduct. Then in Iceland, I had to conduct a couple of concertos to replace Daniel Barenboim – which I managed alright, not terribly well, but okay; and then the orchestra said, “Why don’t you come and do some broadcasts and maybe some concerts?” and I said, “Well, why not?” I hadn’t planned anything in particular; I was too busy playing the piano. And I did some broadcasts and concerts here and there – still not terribly well; but then the word got around, and I did something in England; and then the Philharmonia Orchestra invited me to do a concert at Royal Festival Hall – I did Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony [Op.58], and it was really difficult, because I still didn’t really know how to conduct. But it went terribly well, in spite of my un-preparedness. Musically, it was all right, and I had good reviews – it was quite amazing; and I was so overwhelmed by this kind of success – though still very limited – that I invited some players of the orchestra to a glass of champagne after one of the concerts at Festival Hall. And I took them aside, and said: “Tell me, honestly, is it difficult to play with me – because I really don’t know how to conduct?” They didn’t want to lie, of course, and so they said, “Well, you know, you are just beginning; so, of course, you have more to learn; but please come back, because we like what you’re trying to do.” So, I kept coming back [laughs].
NG: And now that you had the bug, and were gaining success, did you start to study conducting with a private instructor, or did you just keep working at the music in your own way?
VA: No, I never did study with someone. Maybe I should have, but there was no time really, and I somehow I thought, “Well, if people are inviting me, then maybe I’m not so terrible.” And I learned quite a bit – year-by-year, decade-by-decade. I don’t think the musicians have problems now.
NG: Yes, I think it’s obvious that they don’t have problems; you know, there’s a famous line of Aaron Copland, who once said that it’s actually a big secret: that conducting isn’t as hard as people think it is. I’ve done enough conducting myself to question whether that’s true…
VA: Yes, I don’t believe that either. But you know, between us: there have been some great conductors (I will not mention their names) who really didn’t conduct terribly well. And they became almost legends, you know? So, it is a very strange thing; and you often don’t know why the music sounds good when somebody is standing in front of the orchestra, and not good when it’s somebody else – who maybe is very clear and very professional; but then nothing happens. It’s a mystery.
NG: Yes, it is a mystery. Clearly, there is technique involved, but most important is to have a strong understanding of – and a natural affinity for – the music; and then to have the ability to communicate that understanding to the orchestra. And that – after some champagne – was what the players of the Philharmonia were able to tell you: that they wanted you to come back because they saw what a natural communicator you were.
Well, I have one final question: I know that you’ve done some commissioning – such as [Finnish composer, Einojuhani] Rautavarra’s Third Piano Concerto; and indeed you challenged him to write something that you could conduct from the piano – which he seemed to like: I loved his quote, that “only difficult solutions are worthwhile in art”. So, I’m wondering if there are any other composers that you are planning on commissioning, or if there is something you look for in contemporary music that would draw you to want to commission something?
VA: I have no plans, I’m afraid… but it’s a good idea, actually. I’ll ask the [Sydney] Symphony if we could commission something. There are very good composers here, one is Matthew Hindson – very good and very interesting; he’s quite young, in his 40s, and we’ll be playing one of his pieces at Edinburgh. Maybe we’ll do something like that – yes it’s a good idea.
NG: Well, I’m happy to have played a small part of that process. I know that you are currently conducting a couple of other local composers – Ross Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe. There are clearly a lot of good composers in Australia today
VA: Yes, both works are very interesting.
NG: Well, thank you for generous time, Maestro; good luck with your concert later this morning, and with your upcoming tour!
VA: Thank you very much; it’s been a pleasure.
Classical Archives and Decca Records are very pleased to offer a Special Promotion on 10 classic recordings of internationally acclaimed pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, featuring piano solo music and piano concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, and Shostakovich.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 - 4
London Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy
Rel. 13 Feb 1996
Chopin: Favorite Piano Works
Rel. 13 Feb 1996
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas
Rel. 16 Apr 1984
Mozart: Great Piano Concertos
Philharmonia Orchestra of London, Vladimir Ashkenazy
Rel. 26 Aug 1997
Rachmaninov: 24 Preludes/Piano Sonata No.2
Rel. 16 May 1995
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Rel. 9 Jan 2007
Beethoven: Piano Concerto Nos.4 and 5
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta
Rel. 18 Jun 1991
Prokofiev: The 5 Piano Concertos
London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn
Rel. 26 Aug 1997
Scriabin: Le Poème De L'Extase; Piano Concerto; Prometheus
Rel. 18 May 2010