Vladimir Ashkenazy's father was a professional pianist, but he never taught his son. It was his mother who found Ashkenazy his first teacher at age six.
His father was a non-observant Russian Jew, and his mother was a Russian of Eastern Orthodox faith. After his debut in Moscow at the tender age of eight, Ashkenazy was subsequently put on track for a musical career and enrolled in Moscow's Central Music School. His regular piano teacher there was Anaida Sumbatian.
In 1955 he entered the Moscow Conservatory, studying with the great pianist Lev Oborin. In the same year he won second prize in the Fifth Warsaw International Chopin Competition. The following year he won the Gold Medal in the Brussels Queen Elizabeth International piano competition and then toured the United States in 1958. In 1961 he married an Icelandic pianist who was studying in Moscow, Sofia Johannsdottir. He won first prize in the Second Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1962, sharing that honor with British pianist John Ogden. In 1963 Ashkenazy and his wife, travelling on their Soviet passports, went to London, where he made his debut in an orchestral concert at Festival Hall, a great success. He stayed on in England and centered his life and career there, beginning a long association with England's Decca (London) records. He quickly made a reputation as one of the most brilliant pianists in the Russian tradition. In 1971 he moved with his family to Reykjavik, where he was awarded Iceland's Order of the Falcon. In 1972 he took Icelandic citizenship and later established a home base in Switzerland.
He took up the conductor's baton in the 1970s and steadily increased his activity in that sphere, becoming principal guest conductor or music director of such ensembles as the Cleveland Orchestra (1987), and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (1989). With the end of the Soviet Union, he made triumphant return concerts in Russia. He is conductor laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, Japan's NHK Symphony Orchestra, and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. He continues as music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, and took up the new position of principal conductor and artistic adviser to the Sydney Symphony in 2009, with which he'd already made several recordings.
His piano playing is bright and incisive, with clear articulation and intellectual depth that does not interfere with the production of warm feeling. He has exceptional control over tone color. Although he possesses a considerable degree of sheer strength, his excellent playing in delicate passages creates the dominant impression. His repertoire is wide-ranging, and he has recorded most of it, from Haydn to the works of the first half of the 20th century. He has made particularly valuable recordings of the complete piano works of Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin. Other excellent series include music of Brahms, Liszt, and the complete Prokofiev concertos. As a conductor, he is highly effective in Russian music, particularly in Prokofiev, and has made the leading recording of that composer's Romeo and Juliet. He has made his own orchestration of Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and recorded the work in that highly effective version, in Gortchakov's orchestration, and in its original form as a piano solo. He remains active in both careers, although in 2007 he decided keep his piano performances more to the studio in order to give listeners the best he could offer as age starts to take its toll.
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27: 3. Adagio - Extract
Walking In The Air (Excerpt "Lifecycle"), Op.310
Etudes, Op. 10: No. 8 in F Major
Nocturne No.9 in B Major, Op.32, No.1
Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op.87: Prelude & Fugue No.13 in F sharp major: Fugue