Vladimir Ashkenazy began piano lessons at age six and transferred his studies to the Moscow Central Music School for ten years. There he learned the technical aspects of piano playing such as scales, arpeggios, and especially the use of the fingers. He stated that sometimes he was asked to play with “strong fingers” and at other times to play with “not so strong fingers.”
He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, placing second in the Warsaw Chopin competition in 1955. Having already performed the Chopin F minor Concerto and then performing the Chopin Etudes in the West with fingers that played double-notes shaken from the wrist, Ashkenazy appeared to be a Chopin miniaturist. Said the pianist of the Russian conservatory:
“If you had not developed a certain amount of technique by the time you were seventeen, it was too late to work on fundamentals. Each student is expected to do all the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, according to his ability. A fragile girl wouldn’t be expected to play the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, but the general level of repertoire is as difficult as it is high, and the students were expected to master it.”
“One mark of the Russian pianist is minimal motion. The arms and hands are fluid but quiet. Even as children, we are required to use as few movements as possible. We are taught not to waste energy. We were taught to be as relaxed as possible even though we were directed in the use of arms, wrists and hands.”
In the late 1960s, he produced rich interpretations of Beeethovan sonatas and the Concerti. His concerto performances demonstrated excellent orchestral collaboration. His Hammerklavier is one of the highest achievements of this period. His Chopin also deepened. He recorded the Ballades and Scherzos with large style while avoiding all mannerism. In such scores as the C-sharp minor Scherzo, the Barcarolle, the B major Nocturne, and the Second Ballade, Ashkenazy produced some of the best Chopin playing of the 1960s. He also recorded a library of Mozart concerti and sonatas, the finest being his A minor Sonata. Additionally, he produced large amounts of Schumann, Ravel, and Liszt.
Ashkenazy recorded the complete Beethovan sonatas in full, played impeccably. If a student in piano classes asks a teacher which Op. 2, No. 3 to listen to, a piano teacher should state confidently, to hear Ashkenazy’s interpretation as the most representational of Beethovan. His interpretations are highly crafted, stable, professional, faithful to the text, and have perfect rhythm.
“I can learn short pieces, like some Chopin, in a few hours or two days at most,” reported the pianist. “But a Beethovan sonata will consume a week or two of my time. I probably know the work already in my mind and in my ears, but I have to get it into my system; it has to become part of me so I don’t have to concentrate on which note to play next and which finger I use to play it. I try to understand structural relationships and move through the piece slowly, especially if it’s a difficult work. Then, at the piano, I just play it. Working hard at practice is also the best defense I know for perfecting a piece. Style, technique, meaning, and interpretation are not accidental qualities that just fall into place any time. They are the result of practice and concentration which comes only through a lot of hard work.”