Ashkenazy was born in Gorky, Soviet Union (now Nizhny Novgorod, Russia), to the pianist and composer David Ashkenazi and to the actress Yevstolia Grigorievna, born Plotnova. His father was Jewish and his mother was the daughter of a family of Russian Orthodox peasants.
He began playing piano at the age of six. He was accepted to the Central Music School at age eight studying with Anaida Sumbatyan. Ashkenazy attended the Moscow Conservatory where he studied with Lev Oborin and Boris Zemliansky. He won second prize in the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1955 and the first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels in 1956. He shared the first prize in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition with British pianist John Ogdon. As a student, like many in that period, he was harassed by the KGB to become an "informer". He did not really cooperate, despite pressures from the authorities. In 1961 he married the Iceland-born Þórunn Jóhannsdóttir, who studied piano at the Moscow Conservatoire. To marry Ashkenazy, Þórunn was forced to give up her Icelandic citizenship and declare that she wanted to live in the USSR. (Her name is usually transliterated as Thorunn and her nickname was Dódý. She recorded as Dódý Ashkenazy.)
After numerous bureaucratic procedures, the Soviet authorities several times agreed to the Ashkenazys going to the West for musical performances and for visits to his parents-in-law with their first grandson. In his memoirs, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev recollects that Ashkenazy had married an Englishwoman [sic] and on a visit to London refused to go back to the Soviet Union. Khrushchev mentions that Ashkenazy then went to the Soviet Embassy in London and asked what to do, who in turn referred the matter to Moscow. Khrushchev claims to have been of the opinion that to require Ashkenazy to return to the USSR would have made him an 'Anti-Soviet'. He further claims that this was a good example of an artist being able to come and go in and out of the USSR freely, which Ashkenazy himself said was a gross "distortion of the truth." . In 1963 Ashkenazy decided to leave the USSR permanently, establishing residence in London where his wife's parents lived.
The couple moved to Iceland in 1968 where, in 1972, Ashkenazy became an Icelandic citizen. In 1970 he helped to found the Reykjavík Arts Festival, of which he remains Honorary President. In 1978 the couple and their (then) four children (Vladimir Stefan, Nadia Liza, Dimitri Thor, and Sonia Edda) moved to Lucerne, Switzerland. Their fifth child, Alexandra Inga, was born in 1979. As of 1989, Ashkenazy resides in Meggen. His eldest son Vladimir, who uses his nickname 'Vovka' as a stage name, is a pianist, as well as a teacher at the Imola International Piano Academy, and his second son, Dimitri, is a clarinetist.
Ashkenazy has recorded a wide range of piano repertoire, both solo works and concerti. His recordings include:Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier
Bach's French Suites
24 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich
complete sonatas by Beethoven
complete sonatas by Scriabin
the complete works for piano by Rachmaninoff
the complete works for solo piano by Chopin
the (almost) complete works for piano by Schumann
His concerto recordings include:the complete piano concertos of Mozart (conducting from the keyboard with the Philharmonia Orchestra)
three cycles of the 5 Beethoven concerti
(a) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg SoltiBrahms with Bernard Haitink (No. 1 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra; No. 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic)
Bartók (with Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic Orchestra)
Prokofiev (with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra)
two cycles of the Rachmaninoff concerti
(b) with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic
(c) conducting from the piano with the Cleveland Orchestra
In public piano performances, Ashkenazy was known for rejecting a tie and button shirt in favor of a white turtleneck and for running (not walking) onstage and offstage. He has also performed and recorded chamber music.
Moreover, Ashkenazy has had an acclaimed collaborative career, including an acclaimed recording of Beethoven's complete violin sonatas with Itzhak Perlman, as well as the cello sonatas with Lynn Harrell, and the piano trios with Harrell and Pinchas Zukerman.
Midway through his pianistic career, Ashkenazy branched into conducting. In Europe, Ashkenazy was principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1987 to 1994, and of the Czech Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003. Ashkenazy is also conductor laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor laureate of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra. In July 2013 he became director of the Accademia Pianistica Internazionale di Imola, succeeding its founder and director Franco Scala. His recordings as a conductor include complete cycles of the symphonies of Sibelius and of Rachmaninoff, as well as orchestral works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky.
Outside of Europe, Ashkenazy served as music director of the NHK Symphony Orchestra from 2004 to 2007. He was chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 2009 to 2013.
Ashkenazy has recorded for Decca since 1963; in 2013, Decca celebrated his 50th anniversary with the label with the box set 'Vladimir Ashkenazy: 50 Years on Decca', including 50 of Ashkenazy's recordings as both pianist and conductor. As part of Ashkenazy's 80th birthday celebrations, Decca is releasing the 'Complete Piano Concerto Recordings' and 'Ashkenazy on Vinyl' in July 2017.
In other media, Ashkenazy has also appeared in several films on music by Christopher Nupen. He has also made his own orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1982). There has been a CD produced of his works named 'The Art of Ashkenazy', and a biography of Ashkenazy, 'Beyond Frontiers', has been published.1955 International Chopin Piano Competition, Warsaw (Second prize)
1956 Queen Elisabeth Music Competition for piano, Brussels
1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition, Moscow (shared with John Ogdon)
2000 Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award, with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducting corps
Current president of the Rachmaninoff Society.
2014 Sergei Rachmaninov International Award
Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance (with orchestra)
1974 Beethoven: The Piano Concertos (Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Georg Solti & Chicago Symphony Orchestra)
Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance
1979 Beethoven: Sonatas for Violin and Piano (Itzhak Perlman & Vladimir Ashkenazy)
1982 Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor (Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell)
1988 Beethoven: The Complete Piano Trios (Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell)
Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance
1986 Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit; Pavane pour une infante défunte; Valses nobles et sentimentales
2000 Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87