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Vladimir Ashkenazy's fingers and thumbs

Debunking the heroic mystic of the Russian maestro pianist.

One to One
BBC Radio 4

A short interview with the 75-year-old Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (who quit the USSR for England, then Iceland, in 1963) took place in a hotel room at Heathrow, after recording a Rachmaninoff trio that had required a full six months’ practice (4 December, 9.30am). Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, he explained to the interviewer Olivia O’Leary, were relatively easy to play (“no technical problems”) unlike Beethoven (“much worse”) and the impossible Rachmaninoff (“you name it. Unbelievable”).

O’Leary is an intriguing interviewer, giving an evocative, almost fan-girl introduction that implies she could talk for hours on the subject and then taking herself out of the picture almost entirely, saying so little that she you can actually hear her interlocutor in the act of sitting forward and filling the silence.

“My hands are not terribly good for pianoplaying,” confessed Ashkenazy, to which O’Leary rightly responded with a laugh. “No, it’s not a joke, it’s true,” he protested, vaguely aghast. “I have not big hands, not terribly small, not quite average, and my fingers since birth are built in such a way I can hardly play. I need to practice quite a lot – still – simply to play certain passages that for other players are easy to do.”

This did not sound like a currying-favourishly deliberate debunking of the heroic mystique of the Russian maestro. It sounded like the truth, and if you stop reading this and instead watch Ashkenazy attack Chopin’s Prelude No 24 on YouTube you can believe his claims.

He appears to be endlessly sucking a gobstopper in front of his teeth while playing as though distracting himself from a ruthless pain (and possibly a guinea-piggish odour rising from the Steinbeck mingling not entirely unpleasingly with the wood polish. He is definitely sniffing.) Had he not been a pianist, says Ashkenazy, he would have played football, or been a mathematician. “I don’t know,” he sighed towards the end, of some of his rivals. “Some people never understand anything they are playing – not a thing! – and are still terribly famous. I won’t give any names . . .”

He gives a whoop of merriment. None of it was unkindly meant. Or was it? O’Leary, exquisitely, didn’t push.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?