Vladimir Ashkenazy's father was a professional pianist, but he never taught his son. It was his mother who found Ashkenazy his first teacher at age six. His father was a non-observant Russian Jew, and his mother was a Russian of Eastern Orthodox faith. After his debut in Moscow at the tender age of eight, Ashkenazy was subsequently put on track for a musical career and enrolled in Moscow's Central Music School. His regular piano teacher there was Anaida Sumbatian.
In 1955 he entered the Moscow Conservatory, studying with the great pianist Lev Oborin. In the same year he won second prize in the Fifth Warsaw International Chopin Competition. The following year he won the Gold Medal in the Brussels Queen Elizabeth International piano competition and then toured the United States in 1958. In 1961 he married an Icelandic pianist who was studying in Moscow, Sofia Johannsdottir. He won first prize in the Second Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1962, sharing that honor with British pianist John Ogden. In 1963 Ashkenazy and his wife, travelling on their Soviet passports, went to London, where he made his debut in an orchestral concert at Festival Hall, a great success. He stayed on in England and centered his life and career there, beginning a long association with England's Decca (London) records. He quickly made a reputation as one of the most brilliant pianists in the Russian tradition. In 1971 he moved with his family to Reykjavik, where he was awarded Iceland's Order of the Falcon. In 1972 he took Icelandic citizenship and later established a home base in Switzerland.
He took up the conductor's baton in the 1970s and steadily increased his activity in that sphere, becoming principal guest conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra of London (1981), music director of the Royal Philharmonic of London (1987), principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra (1987), and chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (1989). Between 1998 and 2003, he was the Czech Philharmonic's chief conductor, and he took up leadership of Japan's NHK Symphony Orchestra in the 2004-2005 season, while continuing as music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra. With the end of the Soviet Union, he has made triumphant return concerts in Russia.
His piano playing is bright and incisive, with clear articulation and intellectual depth that does not interfere with the production of warm feeling. He has exceptional control over tone color. Although he possesses a considerable degree of sheer strength, his excellent playing in delicate passages creates the dominant impression. His repertoire is wide-ranging, and he has recorded most of it, from Haydn to the works of the first half of the twentieth century. He has made particularly valuable recordings of the complete piano works of Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin. Other excellent series include music of Brahms, Liszt, and the complete Prokofiev concertos. As a conductor, he is highly effective in Russian music, particularly in Prokofiev, and has made the leading recording of that composer's Romeo and Juliet. He has made his own orchestration of Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and recorded the work in that highly effective version, in Gortchakov's orchestration, and in its original form as a piano solo. He remains active in both careers.