MUSIC : Vladimir Ashkenazy’s Long Voyage Home : Recordings made during his return to the Soviet Union recall bittersweet memories for the pianist-conductor

<i> John Henken is a Times music writer. </i>

You can go home again. Just don’t expect to do so quietly if you are one of the world’s more prominent musicians, returning to the Soviet Union after more than a quarter-century in self-imposed exile.

When Vladimir Ashkenazy arrived in Moscow last year for two concerts, he came with his own orchestra and a small media army. The trip--more than year in the planning, involving many organizations in three countries--was the subject of a BBC documentary and wide press coverage, and his concerts were televised live in the U.S.S.R., Scandinavia and Great Britain.

Part of the attention was due to the extraordinary timing of the event. In many ways, the Ashkenazy story became a human paradigm for the political developments altering the face of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

“It was utterly amazing. We arrived on the 9th of November,” Ashkenazy recalls. “One of the first things we were told was that last night the Berlin wall fell. Now, I’ll always be able to remember the date.”


A year later, the last of three CDs documenting the music-making on the brief visit has been released. The glow obviously lingers for Ashkenazy, but memories of the logistical and technical complexities involved enter his recollections now, which are further tempered by his more recent experiences and the current difficulties in his rapidly changing homeland.

“It’s a very long, conspiratorial story,” Ashkenazy sighs, when asked to describe the origins of his tumultuous journey. “Feelers started coming out--many times removed, not even second-hand--shortly after Gorbachev came to power.

“I didn’t take it seriously, but I let it be known that if invited, I would consider it positively. I got in touch with the Soviet embassy in Washington. I said, ‘I’ll meet only with the ambassador--the ambassador or nobody.’

“When they tried to get me to meet with the cultural attache, I knew it wasn’t very high-level yet. So it went on to a slow-burner, though I was always in touch with my father in Moscow.”

Like the proud parties to a gingerly marital reconciliation, neither Ashkenazy nor the Soviet cultural officials wanted to appear eager to make the move.

“Six months later, I heard from the Cultural Fund of the U.S.S.R., ‘We hear you want to come back for a concert.’ I said, ‘No, but if you want me to come, I’ll consider it favorably.’

“I guess that was good enough,” Ashkenazy laughs. “The Cultural Fund (which includes Raisa Gorbachev among its directors) is a very new organization. They have wonderful ideas, but they don’t know how to organize yet. What they could do, they did, but the basic organization came from my managers (Harrison/Parrott Ltd.).”

The planning took a year in itself, once Ashkenazy decided that he would come not as a piano recitalist but as a conductor. “I wanted to bring the orchestra because that is what I felt most comfortable with,” he simply says.


Ashkenazy left the Soviet Union, apparently for good, in 1963. As an 18 year-old in 1955, he won second prize in the International Chopin Competition, and the following year took first prize in the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium Competition. By the time he shared the first prize of the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition with John Ogdon, he had already made a debut tour of the U.S., and married a pianist from Iceland who was studying in Moscow.

His return at the head of his own orchestra--he became music director of the Royal Philharmonic in 1987--indicated a major shift in his career since he left the Soviet Union. Little of this was known to his Russian audience on his return, as he was still officially a non-person.

“They dropped my name from any publication,” Ashkenazy says. “When I came to Moscow, a photographic exhibition about the history of the Tchaikovsky Competition was still on in the hall next door. I was not in it.”

It was possible to obtain some of Ashkenazy’s recordings in Moscow, he says, but not much was really known about him there.


“In music circles, some people remembered me. I had never been a household name in Russia.”

Nonetheless, his two concerts in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory were sold out. The extra-musical nature of the event was clearly understood.

“The emotions of a return like this are tremendously conflicting,” Ashkenazy said at the time. “But the joy of coming back under these circumstances and seeing this rebirth here overcomes the sadness of the past.”

In retrospect, however, he is characteristically restrained. “It was a very warm reception,” he acknowledges. “But I don’t think I felt any different. For me they were just two concerts that happened to be in Moscow--which I think is the only way for a professional to function.”


During the event, he needed a full measure of professional detachment. In the press of people attending the first concert, some of the recording cables between the communications van and the stage were trampled over, causing technical glitches.

Since the concert was being televised via satellite with only a one hour delay, he had to come back out after both halves of the concert, stop the applause and replay the lost portions of the music.

“That drained the impact,” Ashkenazy ruefully concedes. He regretted the imposition on his audience--which he says was accepted very gracefully--but felt an overwhelming obligation to the broadcast companies and their waiting listeners and viewers.

Not everyone understood or sympathized with his dilemma.


“At a press conference the following morning the British press were very critical. The man from the (London) Times had some very immature questions, and his article the next day had the headline ‘Ashkenazy in for a Take.’ It was very misleading. I sent them a letter about it.”

The recordings which document the musical results of the trip also reveal some of the strands of the institutional web needed to finance it. Though Ashkenazy is an exclusive Decca artist, he was surprised to find that his own company was not greatly interested in supporting the project.

Since he was between contracts at the time, though, he was free to seek the highest bidder, which turned out to be Angel-EMI. The recording on that label came out this summer, featuring the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Andrei Gavrilov. (CDC-54003).

But the Royal Philharmonic is unusual among orchestras in that it has its own record label, begun in 1986. RPO Records, distributed here by MCA Classics, issued the other repertory from the trip on two discs.


The final recording from the trip, released last month, features English works. The British Council contributed a generous chunk of money to the endeavor, according to Ashkenazy, with the stipulation that the repertory include two major English works. Thus Walton’s Symphony No. 2 and Oliver Knussen’s Symphony No. 3 are on the disc in live recordings from Moscow, filled out with a subsequent studio version of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

The cover of that recording documents its institutional ancestry like a coat-of-arms. It carries the logos of RPO Records, MCA Classics, Cable & Wireless, and the British Council, while the back of the disc adds “in association with Harrison/Parrott Ltd. and Vladimir Ashkenazy.”

The choice of repertory, Ashkenazy says, was basically pragmatic. Rehearsals took place in Britain and Scandinavia, with only a run-through in Moscow. The Beethoven was chosen as a piece that Ashkenazy could play without a conductor, and still provide something of a pianistic show, and the Walton and Knussen selections fit the requirements of the British Council.

The Walton Symphony will also be on the bill when Ashkenazy returns to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in March. Ashkenazy is also recording the piece, paired with the Walton First, with the Royal Philharmonic in May for Decca.


Ashkenazy’s career now tends to favor the podium over the piano, but he points out that is more a matter of practicality than preference. His conducting commitments simply keep him with orchestras for longer periods of time.

He is in town, however, on a warm December day, for a piano recital, playing a short Beethoven/Brahms program for the L’Ermitage Foundation’s Performing Arts Series, benefiting the Foundation’s local children’s charities. (He is not a relative of Severyn and Arnold Ashkenazy, who established the Foundation in 1983.)

“I do a few charity concerts, here and there if it fits my schedule,” Ashkenazy says. Such donations seem to be the center of his concertizing in the Soviet Union, however. The celebratory concerts last November were in part for charity, and he has been back twice since then, to Leningrad for piano recitals.

The first of these was in June, benefiting a Tchaikovsky memorial. The second was in September, for a new hospice program.


“It’s totally uncommercial, totally unprofitable,” Ashkenazy insists. “I don’t want any money from them.”

He also doesn’t want much in the way of Soviet engagements in general, at least in the current situation.

“I’m not anxious to go back too often,” he says. “The situation is chaotic, and it’s not too pleasant. It’s not something I give any priority.”

His reasons for this attitude include an impression of disintegration in musical life. Although major events such as his own concerts, and many pop attractions, still attract large audiences, the situation, he says, has become worse and worse through the last decade.


“Generally, concerts are very badly attended,” he laments. “People say it’s a disaster.”

But Ashkenazy also notes that the Soviets are not acclimatized to the rapid pace and long term planning of the Western arts market (which has been a boon to some American orchestral and opera administrators needing sudden replacements in recent seasons--few Soviet artists were booked far ahead).

While in Moscow he was asked by the director of the conservatory orchestra if he would consider coming to conduct the students. The poor director was dumbfounded when Ashkenazy said of course, and offered him some dates in October, 1992--the director was planning his concerts for the following month.

“That’s the way I operate. I’m accustomed to work on this time scale,” Ashkenazy states. “It’s all so different there--it’s just too complicated, too unpredictable.”