Book Review : The Autobiography of a Russian Pianist

Times Book Critic

Ashkenazy: Beyond Frontiers by Jasper Parrott with Vladimir Ashkenazy (Atheneum: $14.95)

In the introductory notes to this book about the brilliant Russian pianist, Vladimir Ashkenazy, we are told that he was reluctant to produce a memoir at this mid-point of his life and career. So what we get is autobiography by interruption. Its title might have been: "What Ashkenazy Really Means to Say Is. . . "

The interrupter, prompter and explicator is Ashkenazy's longtime agent, Jasper Parrott. He has taped a series of conversations with the pianist touching on his youth, musical education, career before and after his departure from the Soviet Union, his thoughts about communism and the West, reflections about musical performance and other such topics.

The conversations seem to have been ragged and elliptical. One imagines Parrott confronted by moody silences and foggy generalities. He has tried to fill the gaps by providing bridge passages, background and long stretches of summary and interpretation. It is roughly two-thirds Parrott, one-third Ashkenazy; and this is reflected in the formula, "By Jasper Parrott with Vladimir Ashkenazy."

A Poor Sort of Book That may be giving credit where credit is due, but it makes a poor sort of book. Conceive of a Mozart sonata in which Ashkenazy plays three bars, Parrott whistles the next nine, and so on, alternately. Or, as a similarly constructed "Moby Dick" might have begun: "The narrator wishes to say that he would like to be called Ishmael."

The pianist's reluctance to explore himself and Parrott's difficulty in getting him to produce this kind of line: "Ashkenazy remembers little of special interest to the Westerner about his life in Moscow as a child and adolescent." Ouch. Or, explaining his resignation as principal conductor of the London Philharmonia: "It emerged that the orchestra's management had, in Ashkenazy's opinion, failed to live up to some important understandings reached during the preceding year."

There is equally evocative stuff about his marriage to an Icelandic pianist. Clearly it has been a happy one, but I suppose the authors are adapting Tolstoy's phrase about all happy families being the same, and leaving it at that.

More seriously, there is hardly a personal or musical portrait in the entire book that even begins to come to life. Ashkenazy recognizes the contribution made by his two teachers: Anaida Sumbatian, who taught him as a child and adolescent, and Boris Zemlyansky, who took over in the conservatory. But we get little sense of what they were like or how they went about teaching him. As an emigre star, he associated closely with Daniel Barenbiom and Pinchas Zukerman. He played a great deal with Itzhak Perlman, yet there is not one word to describe their collaboration.

Awakens Imagination Very occasionally there is a phrase or passage that awakens our imagination. We get fragments of his father's colorful career as an itinerant and well-paid pianist on the Soviet version of the music-hall circuit. At one provincial town, the piano had no legs, so Daniel Ashkenazy was obliged to thump away while lying on the floor. There is an interesting question about why Russian musicians have trouble with Mozart's "Practical gift of putting your material in an ideally communicative shape--the very thing which is probably most foreign to a chaotic emotional Russian." The answer is not very precise but we are grateful for the question.

Ashkenazy's career as a musical prodigy was pushed by his mother, and no doubt some of the talent came from his father. His words about them bear out his periodic admission that he is more analytical than emotional. When his father was briefly taken in by the KGB for questioning, Ashkenazy declined to share his family's alarm. "It seems to me that he would either come back or he wouldn't."

Written down, the phrase sounds dreadful. In conversation, one can imagine that it may have seemed less harsh. But this is one of the drawbacks of autobiography by interview and interpellation. There are others.

In the long passages where Parrott paraphrases his subject or describes his thinking, things can become quite peculiar. After Ashkenazy is quoted on useful aspects of Soviet musical education, though with reservations, Parrott hastens to stress the reservations, explaining that the pianist deplores the constrictions. Clearly, Parrott is doing his best to convey his client's thinking, but the effect is preemptive. Instead of a writer coming to terms with his own contradictory thoughts, we have the role of contradictor and super ego taken on by someone else. The method also expands the possibilities for self-congratulation: Ashkenazy is not slow to speak of his triumphs and virtues, and Parrott is very quick indeed.

Interesting Things Ashkenazy-Parrott have some interesting things to say about the pianist's skill in using his prestige as a young Soviet star--he won the Tchaikovsky Medal back after Van Cliburn had taken it the previous year--to gradually loosen the hold that the authorities exercised over him. The picture of a harsh, ox-like but not impermeable bureaucracy comes over nicely. Ashkenazy seems to have managed his final departure by orchestrating a wide-spread impression that he didn't particularly want to leave and in any case would soon be back. The authors add to this account a great deal of philosophizing about the political and moral confrontation of East and West. Ashkenazy believes that the latter needs some bracing. He suggests screening scientists and politicians for evidences of subversive thinking. There is a hint of Solzhenitsyn here, but the language and thinking are pedestrian and woolly.

The pianist's career in the West is recounted with a dearth of enlivening incident or feeling. There is little discussion of musical and technical problems except in the most general terms. Ashkenazy's approach, it seems, is to work hard, to stretch himself and to avoid facility.

This is accurate. In fact, critics regard him as a pianist who is profoundly musical and far more than a technician. He has the notes to prove it but not, by the evidence of this book, the words. Ashkenazy-Parrott have produced a 200-page program note.

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