In the converted crypt of the Henry Wood Rehearsal Hall in Southwark, Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor, toyed with two slim wooden batons. One had been lent by a double-bass player to replace another he had broken and the tip of that had already snapped. The other looked equally battered. He had left behind the fibre glass one given him by Eugene Ormandy not because Ormandy had once stabbed himself in the thigh with it but because, as he put it, ‘it would revolt’. He had just been rehearsing the Philharmonia Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth before performing it at the Brighton Festival and later recording it for Decca. If he was a little unhappy with the three or four month gap between performance and recording – ‘That’s London music life’, he shrugged – he was very happy with the orchestra.
‘It’s one of their good periods. Riccardo Muti has brought in players and built up the orchestra. The standard is very high. They are all so musical, very artistic and the sound they produce…The tradition going back some 30 years still applies. Even when they were not so good the sound of the strings was very special, a very full and warm sound. In the intense, lush string passages of Tchaikovsky they are so good you don’t need to do anything, don’t need to ask anything from them. They are very friendly people also and quite indulgent with me. They help me a great deal.’
Now committed exclusively to Decca as a conductor, Ashkenazy expects to make three or four records a year – perhaps 20 in the course of a five-year contract. ‘Time for three or four projects,’ he says, mentioning Rachmaninov, Sibelius and perhaps the Mozart symphonies.
He made his London debut as a conductor in February last year. But he first began some eight years ago cutting his teeth on the semi-professional orchestra in Iceland where he has made his home. ‘Sometimes they produce interesting musical performances but technically they are not very good. You have to treat them as children. One has to take care not to acquire bad habits. I was utterly terrible when I started. Now I can produce the results I want to. It’s how I achieve the results I am not happy with.’ Though Ashkenazy has sought advice from his friends, he is conscious that he can really only learn from experience. ‘The basic thing is to conduct and conduct. To have real control of the orchestra you need to have it in your system. To waste the least amount of time in rehearsal – for that you need a lot of experience.’
Ashkenazy is clearly determined. ‘The orchestra has always been my passion. I always wanted to be a conductor. It’s just that I played the piano.’ There is evidence of his commitment to conducting this July. Then he is breaking into the two months of the summer he tries to keep free from engagements to visit the festivals in America, something he has not done for seven years. He will be conducting the orchestras in Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston. ‘I have conducted the Boston before so I must have done it well for them to ask me back.’
He usually spends the summer in his holiday home near Epidavros on the Greek coast with his family – his Icelandic wife, Thorunn, whom he met in 1958 when she was studying at the Moscow Conservatoire and married three years later soon after he left Russia and their four children, two boys and two girls ranging from three to 16.
Though the family, or at least some members, often join him on tour, the summer break and two other holidays of two or three weeks at Christmas and Easter are sacrosanct as his wife, Thorunn, who had been watching him rehearse at the Henry Wood Hall with their eldest son, Vladimir, made plain. Ashkenazy himself has no difficulty in controlling the demands upon him in one respect. ‘The negative control is perfect. I have always exercised that in all sorts of contexts. But the positive control is more complicated.’
He only recently made a series of programmes for television. But he was not to be drawn on the success or otherwise of the operation although Thorunn thought, for instance, that the colour explosions accompanying Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy worked very well. ‘I am a professional.’ says Ashkenazy. ‘As long as there is music, it’s important. The most important thing is that music is made and then how it is made. I don’t mind what I see on the screen. It will not make any difference to me. It’s important, this television. So many people watch it. If it persuades one person in a thousand to classical music, it’s worthwhile. People can graduate to going to concerts and to records.’
But Ashkenazy’s chief concern is how to strike a balance between conducting and playing which, of course, he has no intention of giving up. When we talked, he was about to play the Beethoven concertos with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Paris and New York. His recording plans include all the piano works of Chopin and all the Beethoven sonatas. ‘I have so limited a time as a conductor that I have to think very carefully where I’m going from here. It’s by no means an easy decision. I have to find a way of reconciling things to my own satisfaction and that of my public. I don’t want to do things which are not on a decent level.’
As he had been rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, had already recorded the Fifth and as this month sees the release of new recording of the Manfred Symphony and he is planning to do the Sixth and possibly the First, Winter Dreams, it seemed relevant to ask, ‘Why Tchaikovsky?’. His music, after all, is so often recorded and played. ‘I am Russian,’ was Ashkenazy’s immediate response. ‘I like Tchaikovsky’s music very much. His best music is his orchestral music and two or three operas. When I was a teenager I had a great affection for it. Now it has subsided and I see it in perspective. The music is criticized for being accessible, but isn’t Beethoven accessible? Of course it can be exaggerated, which I resent very much, which I greatly detest. It’s very intense music. That’s what one tries to bring out without making it sentimental and cheap. There is a delicate balance. When you are too conscious of it, it is wrong. There is a natural feeling for i t which is not rational but irrational. I am convinced I know what to do with it.’
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