Brendel went out with a bang, Ashkenazy with a whisper

Brendel went out with a bang, Ashkenazy with a whisper


norman lebrecht

January 19, 2020

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s retirement, announced yesterday by his management, leaves a troubling trail of open questions.

Ashkenazy, at 82, is more than entitled to his peace and quiet, but why slip away at the weekend like an unwelcome guest, and why make it ‘effective immediately’?

Alfred Brendel’s retirement was announced 13 months in advance, chroegraphed in the media and concluded with the Vienna Philharmonic a few days before Christmas in 2008. Way to go.

Brendel and Ashkenazy were the dominant recorded pianists of the late 20th century. They were public figures and, to a degree, historic personalities. For one to go without saying goodbye is unsatisfactory and out of character. So why?

I hope all is well with Vova and wish him a quiet time.


  • steven holloway says:

    I most certainly hope that all is well with Vova, although I have no reason to suppose it is not. On the other hand, I am in no doubt that, whatever his reasons for retiring — reasons the tabloid media in all forms is not, as its operators think, entitled to know — they are his business as a private individual. Vova is decidedly not of that generation that may seek to foster the highest public profile, in the manner of such as Jennifer Aniston, et al., and in so doing may in some cases be said to invite speculation and gossip. The term “public figure” is nebulous. It may, I suppose, be said that when I give a public lecture, I become a public figure, but not in the sense that I may be said to have deliberately made myself a public figure and open game. No one would be interested anyway. TV and film celebrities often do that, and so do certain, here unnamed, classical executant musicians, but Vova is not one of those. If more and significant information is forthcoming, I shall be interested. But otherwise, I suggest Vova be left alone.

    • Jan Kaznowski says:

      Does anybody know what Mr A’s last concert was ?
      I think he has performed since he had those arm problems in Japan last spring

      • Anna says:

        He has performed several concerts since then. We have no reason to suppose that his arms problems are the cause of his retirement, although they may well be.

    • Larry D says:

      I cherish Jennifer Aniston’s complete Beethoven sonatas and would be sad to see her retire. But I agree, leave her in peace!

      • steven holloway says:

        Your comment made me smile this rainy morn. I made mention of the televisual Ms Aniston as an example in order to avoid, at considerable distance, any one of a few classical musicians whose controversial presentation plus avid following would likely, as of now, result in my comment having 83 thumbs down and three up. (–:

    • Esther Cavett says:

      Ashkenazy was loved by orchestras because he showed massive respect to the players. Compare this to the abuse Barenboim give to Chicago Symphony when they had problems with Elgar Dream of Gerontius (which almost none of them knew).

      Wishing Mr A a long and happy retirement

  • jon says:

    Askenazy gave up performing in public as a pianist 12 years ago in 2007 as a result of arthritis in his hands. That ‘retirement’ was announced quietly and without any extended fanfare – he simply stopped performing.

    This announcement would seem to be much of a piece with his previous modus operandi, so I don’t think we should read too much into this, and respect his decision.

    • Andy says:

      Do you know when he last performed a solo recital or a concerto with Orchestra? I don’t think he was doing that often (if at all?) as last as 2007. I’d love some info if you have any.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Whatever his reasons for retiring are his business and none of ours. He was a very fine pianist and a great musician and we surely wish him well. And as I retired from work at 70 then 82 is not a bad age!

  • PHF says:

    Maybe, just maybe, it is not anyone business to say to the guy when or how to retire. Not using it as a marketing tool to pack halls during a year and making extra media and money is actually very honourable.

    • Andrew Wilde says:

      Brendel was packing halls well before his final year so it is somewhat disingenuous to suggest using it as a marketing tool.

      Perhaps Brendel felt he ought to let us know in advance to prevent the sort of speculation which Ashkenazy’s sudden announcement has engendered.

  • MacroV says:

    He retired from public performance as a pianist several years ago, so his abrupt retirement is just as a conductor.

    Brendel did a farewell tour – as a pianist. Conductors don’t really do them. Harnoncourt and Haitink both retired on fairly short notice (ok Haitink said he’d take a sabbatical but then one day said it would be permanent).

    I suppose he could have said “After my concert last night, I decided I’m not up to doing this anymore…” But evidently he decided to say little.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    He has certainly earned his right to take a break and retire. He is 82! His performance and recorded legacy is tremendous, and he has inspired many musicians for many decades. Let us pray he enjoys good health and family, and to enjoy music as he wishes to. Thank you, Maestro, for your generous gifts to humanity and to music.

  • fflambeau says:

    Careers begin and end differently. So what?

    He was a great musician; nothing will change that.

  • fflambeau says:

    “Brendel and Ashkenazy were the dominant recorded pianists of the late 20th century.”

    Really? Both are exceptional pianists but there were many others: Claudio Arrau; Martha Argerich; Daniel Barenboim; Murray Perahia; Maria Joao Pires; Maurizio Pollini; Jean-Yves Thibaudet; Mitsuko Uchida; Mikhail Pletnev;Christoph Eschenbach; Leon Fleisher; Evgeny Kissin; Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli; Andre Previn; Rudolph Serkin were also great and turned out a few records.

  • fflambeau says:

    Somehow I left out Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter. I haven’t counted records (nor did the author of this nonsense) but I would guess Richter, and Arrau were the most recorded pianists of this time period (also high up on the list would be Barenboim, Perahia.)

  • fflambeau says:

    Well, Sviatoslav Richter has 9 discs (bigger than an album) in his DG collection; and 21 discs in his authorized Sony section at Amazon. Brendal has far fewer (15 LP albums) and his repertoire is much smaller: mostly German speaking composers. Richter’s repertoire ranged from Handel and Bach to Tchaikovsky, Szymanowski, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Britten, Scriabin and Gershwin.

    Meanwhile, the complete Philips Arrau collection is massive at 80 cds and includes Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Schoenberg plus the entire German speaking repertoire. I would put Arrau as the most recorded pianist of the late 20th century followed by Richter.

    Both had a far greater repertoire than Brendal who was/is a fine pianist. All four were wonderful pianists but I would put Arrau and Richter at the top of the class.

  • Fiddlist says:

    As you said yourself, because of his humility. To him, it’s not about him!

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Am I the only one who thinks Brendel was very overrated?

    • We privatize your value says:

      As a poet, certainly! As a pianist… hard to tell. At the keyboard, at least, he was no charlatan.

  • Bruce says:

    (a) He doesn’t owe us a farewell tour.

    (b) I hope everything is OK with him, and he is quitting now because he just woke up one morning and decided “today is the day.” (Although it does seem like it would be more in character to quietly stop accepting new engagements, and just kind of gradually disappear…)

    • Anna says:

      A number of scheduled engagements have been cancelled. This suggests there is a specific reason, although none of our business, I agree.

  • yuwc says:

    The last maestro who announced he was stepping down from conducting with immeadiate effect was Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I admired and enjoyed his many countless recordings. Within a few months, he passed on.

    With Ashkenazy, I hope this is not the case. Perhaps the arthritis in his fingers does not permit him to embark on a farewell tour. Sad.

  • PHIL WALLACE says:

    I heard Mr. A (VOVA) in the National CONCERT Hall in Dublin , the year I’m not sure of pre iPad etc. Perhaps 1984 , it was sublime, I was with my two sisters, we all came along distances to hear him , I remember feeling that I was in heaven, the only other concert in my life which brought me that feeling was hearing Pavoritti in Dublin in 1992. Thank you so much Mr. A. for one of the best evenings of my life.Philomena Wallace, Cork.i just closed my eyes to savour every single note!,♡

  • Grace Wilson says:

    I have a precious memory of this hugely talented musician. Back in the 1980s, my brother and I travelled from Liverpool to Chester for a recital Mr Ashkenazy was giving in the ancient Cathedral. At teatime, we went into a very modestly-priced small cafe in a quiet side street, which was empty but for one other customer. It was the great pianist himself, sitting with his cup of tea or coffee and a small plate of food. He looked so very lonely. Twenty minutes or so later, as Mr Ashkenazy passed our table on his way out, my brother stood up, asked if he could shake his hand and wished him well for the recital. He was undoubtedly genuinely surprised to be recognised, sat down at our table and chatted for a few minutes about the music he would be playing later. What came across so clearly was his modesty and his gentle personality. I sincerely hope he is retiring for no other reason than the desire to completely relax and spend much more time with family and friends.

  • Anna says:

    Of course, the statement says ‘retiring from public performances’. Does this also include the recording studio? If not, then it would suggest that illness/age/arthritis/whatever will prevent him from performing in situations whereby there is one chance to get it right. Yet perhaps he can cope with recording sessions whereby something can be edited and done again. I agree – it is within his nature to do it quietly and not milk it for what it is worth . I wish him well.

  • Piano Fan says:

    Vladimir Ashkenazy has been a consummate performing musician for over 60 years. He doesn’t owe the public a farewell tour or Norman Lebrecht an explanation for his retirement.

    • I saw him at Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center in the late 60’s with Seijy Ozawa conducting. Mr A played the “Emperor Concerto”, and it was a revelation! Such beautiful phrasing. The rest of the program was Ives’ Fourth Symphony that Mr Ozawa conducted single handedly – without conducting help, and Ginastera
      “Estancia Suite”. This concert remains one of the highlights of my musical journey.

  • Charles says:

    But sure why he needs to explain anything about why has retired or why he does not want to create a hullabaloo about it.

    And where is this idea that there is a troubling trail of questions? I have just seen an outpouring of love online.

  • jm960 says:

    The very best wishes to Vladimir Ashkenazy and his family. Deepest gratitude and respect for decades of great music making…….he owes us no explanation for his sudden retirement. I wish him peace and happiness. He gave and gave and gave and bowing out this way seems very honorable indeed. He was always about the music and humanity….not himself.

    • Esther Cavett says:

      Mr A is a neighbour of Bernard Haitink in Lucerne. Maybe BH is recommending the life of a retiree – smelling the roses ?

  • Walter says:

    He is one of the greatest musicians of our time and also among the kindest. When I flew to Reykjavik in 2017 to hear him conduct the Iceland Symphony I was able to attend a rehearsal. I remember Ashkenazy asking the orchestra if they were happy with everything. Afterwards I was able to meet him and he invited me to lunch with his wife Dodi. That made my day. It was my birthday as well. I wish him all the best in his well deserved retirement.

  • Grabenassel says:

    Since VA always was the most humble person one can imagine it‘s no surprise he didn’t make a big deal about his retirement. For those asking for reasons: He had some severe health problems, which have increased recently. You could not tell from the audience but as a musician working with him you could. It was a wise decision, that’s how we‘ll keep him in good memory as one the greatest musicians.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    I remember going with an amateur conductor to hear Mr. Ashkenazy
    rehearse a student orchestra at one of London’s music colleges.
    One of the works was Sheherazade, a piece my friend was preparing at the the time to conduct with an amateur orchestra.
    During the interval he approached Mr. Ashkenazy who then spent the whole break discussing the piece with him and asking whether he had noticed this or that part, and giving him practical advice.
    How many musicians who have taken time to do that?
    My guess is not many.
    May he enjoy a long and happy retirement.
    He has more than earned it.

  • Joel A Stein says:

    I attended some remarkable Ashkenazy concerts in the late 60s and 70s. An absolutely spectacular Hammerklavier at Carnegie in 1971.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    Pointless questions. How like a critic to labor an artist with expectations.

  • Shepsl says:

    Your comparison of Ashkenazy’s exit, using rather negative imagery, with Brendel’s well-orchestrated one, which you obviously think is the only proper way to go, seemed like the petulant response of a spoiled child being denied the last piece of candy in the bowl. A bang vs a whimper? Why was a comparison even necessary? Just give the man his just praise, wish him well, and leave it at that.

  • Meredith Foster says:

    I first heard the young Ashkenazy at a RFH recital in London during the Summer of 1967. He played a programme of Beethoven and Chopin.
    My abiding memory is of his then great sensitivity and acutely poetical style, not to mention the brilliant technique and effortless mastery.

    I’m sure this diminutive giant will be sorely missed at the great conert venues of the world.

  • Marc Widner says:

    I first heard this brilliant and distinguished artist in recital in Massey Hall, Toronto, in 1970, as I recall. Sheer magnificence, but I have never forgotten the effect his performance of the slow movement of Mozart’s great c minor Sonata had on me (I was 14). To this day, I do not understand how a piano can be made to sound that way. Respect…