This ungainly but exceptionally interesting book is a collaboration between Vladimir Ashkenazy, the brilliant pianist, and Jasper Parrott, who has been his agent for nearly two decades. Its ungainliness is the result of awkward structure -- passages written by Parrott alternate unpredictably with extended remarks by Ashkenazy -- and of Parrott's tendency to swoon over the manifold gifts and virtues of his client. But this is of less consequence than the book's forthright discussion of many provocative subjects, about all of which Ashkenazy reveals himself to be well-informed and thoughtfully opinionated.
Ashkenazy is 47 years old; among the pianists of his generation he is in the first rank, if not indeed first among all. Like many other distinguished musicians he is a native of the Soviet Union and was taught in its Central Music School and Conservatoire; this education is described in considerable detail, with equal emphasis on its strengths (intense instruction, the company of other gifted students) and faults (narrow curriculum, isolation from society). To Ashkenazy, this establishment of a musical elite is "one of the many inconsistencies and hypocrisies which permeate the whole of Soviet life," though he is grateful for the opportunities it afforded him personally.
The turning point in his career came when, at 18, he won the Belgians Piano Competition in Brussels. Though a victory in the Tchaikovsky Competition soon followed, this first triumph spread the word "not only in Europe but in America that a really major young artist had appeared on the scene." If anything, winning the Tchaikovsky Competition was a stroke of irony, for this Russian pianist had then, and has now, little enthusiasm for the music of the revered Russian composer for whom the competition is named. "I am not a typical product of Russia," Ashkenazy says:
"Something inside me always protested against certain things in Russia -- the excessive emphasis on the emotional, the refusal to think rather than just to feel. In musical terms this carries over into my work. With Mozart, for instance, a composer with whom many Russians have a lot of difficulties, there is his impeccable sense for form which one could describe as the practical gift of putting your material in an ideally communicative shape -- the very thing which is probably most foreign to a chaotic, emotional Russian . . . I hardly played any Mozart while I was in the Soviet Union -- maybe at most one or two sonatas -- and I'm sure that I didn't understand a note of what I was playing. Now, of course, Mozart is a central part of my repertoire."
Had Ashkenazy not emigrated to the West, his life in Russia as a performing artist presumably would have been spent playing the music central to the Russian repertoire; his lack of enthusiasm for that prospect undoubtedly figured in his eventual decision to leave the country. But there were other considerations as well, among them the personal (his wife is a native of Iceland) and the political. On the latter Ashkenazy kept his silence for a long time; he did not seek political asylum in London, and he declined to give interviews critical of the Soviet government.
The unwritten deal with Russian authorities was that Ashkenazy "would keep a low profile and would make no anti-Soviet statements in return for his conveniently anomalous position as a Russian living in the West with a Soviet passport." But when a Russian press attache' attempted to use him "as a convenient example of the freedoms enjoyed by Soviet artists," Ashkenazy broke his silence: "When an official Soviet spokesman says that I move freely between Russia and the West, as I only wish I could, it is a gross and unfair distortion of the truth." Since then he has been outspoken in his criticism of the Soviet system, especially as it denies individuality:
"Paradoxically, one could almost say that by now Soviet Man has become what he was designed to be: 'the freest on earth,' according to the old cliche', because he is free of any duties or responsibilities to himself as an individual. He does not have to decide anything for himself, nor to think for himself except about the most trivial matters. As such, Soviet Man is what he should be; an integrated element in a self-serving system with perpetuated total control over the individual."
Ashkenazy speaks with similar eloquence on other political matters; in particular, he makes telling and amusing points about the difficulties the authorities encounter in attempting to determine whether musical compositions are politically orthodox. He is rather less forthright on certain musical matters; he politely declines comment on his competitors among pianists, and he has less to say about composers and their music than his admirers probably would like to hear.
This no doubt is because he is as much gentleman as musician. His interest is not in publicity or controversy, but in the continuing growth of his art. His repertoire is steadily expanding, and in recent years he has made a quite considerable mark as a conductor, notably with the Philharmonia Orchestra, with which he has made a number of distinguished recordings. Both as a musician and as an artist, he takes as his motto these lovely lines by a Russian poet named Samuel Marshak: "I wish for you throughout your life that your heart/ be intelligent and your brain be kind." This book is persuasive testimony that he has succeeded.