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Vladimir Ashkenazy - Master Musician
A film by Christopher Nupen
The Vital Juices are Russian [51:04]; Ashkenazy The conductor [9:03]; Sergei Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations Op. 42 with commentary [24:02]; Corelli Variations (1931) played by Ashkenazy [24:20]
Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Edo de Waart, Itzhak Perlman.
rec. 2008.
Experience Classicsonline

Part of this film came about by chance as many good things do. Vladimir Ashkenazy (b. 1937) was playing the Op.42 Corelli Variations by Rachmaninov (1873-1943) for the formal performance being filmed by Christopher Nupen. As they were setting up, Ashkenazy started to talk about the music, and what it meant to him. What he was doing was worth capturing into a film on its own, as Ashkenazy, talking spontaneously, was revealing the process by which a musician creates a performance. This is far rarer than one might suppose, and is often taken for granted. So here we have three films in one, the full performance, the extempore conversation and a film from the archives, showing how Ashkenazy, like Rachmaninov before him, came to terms with being Russian in a new environment.

Needless to say, the performance is very good, especially as it takes place in a small auditorium with an appreciative audience. This makes a difference, for it is intimate, introspective music, the composer’s last piece for solo piano. As a pianist, he “spoke” with the piano more than with any other instrument. He was also a man who believed firmly that music should be, above all, emotionally resonant. So Ashkenazy appreciates what it must have meant to the composer. Rachmaninov was forced into exile by the Russian Revolution, and though he had a successful career and moved in émigré circles, he never really settled outside his homeland. His identity was so bound up with being Russian that he never quite recovered from the shock of being uprooted. Even the Russia he’s known was changed. It was as if he were in mourning for a world abruptly destroyed. 

As Ashkenazy says, Rachmaninov’s early music was expressive and expansive. “He wants to share with us his enjoyment of the joys of life, he’s generous and open”. As he talks, Ashkenazy plays excerpts from other Rachmaninov pieces, including the Second Symphony to illustrate his point, entirely from memory. The Corelli Variations have “idiomatic eloquence”, but the “Harmony closes in and becomes darker”, as if the composer was drawing into himself rather than being exuberantly open. Ashkenazy plays the main lyrical part, but even this ember of happiness is tinged with melancholy. “There is not a shred of hope”, he comments. The piece was inspired by a legend about a shepherd committing suicide because he lost the one he loved. Perhaps for Rachmaninov, exile was a kind of creative suicide. 

Not so for Ashkenazy, fortunately. He left Russia in his youth, so in many ways adjusted more easily. The archive film shows him with his family in Iceland. He’s bought a house, he plays with his kids, all simple, normal things a man does. But the difference is that he’s always touring, and rarely settles. Though his children are Icelandic, he’s Russian to his soul. There’s a difference, only moderated by the fact that Russia itself has changed. What comes over most, though, is his dedication to his art. It’s worth all the sacrifices he’s made, without question. Ashkenazy met Christopher Nupen when he was only 19, newly arrived in the west. He heard one of Nupen's radio prgrammes and asked him to make a radio programme about Scriabin with him, invited him home, and played him the entire Scriabin piano works during the course of several evenings. It was a spontaneous act of generosity, in the spirit of Rachmaninov at his happiest. No wonder he understands the composer and plays him so well.

Anne Ozorio


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