I'm told that Vladimir Ashkenazy is as approachable a maestro as I'm ever likely to encounter, just before I catch up with him in Japan, a fortnight out from his appearance with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra on Thursday - eventually.

First I have to survive a guardhouse receptionist at his Osaka hotel, who punctuates my laborious spellings-out of the conductor's name with blasts of a Haydn minuet when I'm put on hold. The man himself is the soul of geniality and looks forward to visiting us again.

"Although I don't know your country so well, I always feel at home there," he tells me. "It's like being in England or Australia. I can communicate absolutely naturally and always feel comfortable spiritually."

Before he took up a baton, Ashkenazy was (and still is) a pianist of legendary proportions. Three years ago, he celebrated his half-century with the record label Decca by releasing a handsome 50-CD set, even if aficionados still search out some of his early Soviet albums, recorded before he moved West in 1963.


When I ask Ashkenazy why he took up conducting in the 1970s, he pauses, sighs and then tells me the seeds for this move were sown in Russia in his childhood. "My very first experiences in the music world were with symphony orchestras," he says. "Although I was studying piano, I always went to more orchestral concerts than piano recitals, apart from those which featured Emil Gilels or Sviatoslav Richter."

He can't pick out favourite conductors from back then, as it was the music that caught his imagination.

"I was struck by its scale of expression and the unbelievable range of colours, even if sometimes the music itself wasn't really so great."

Thursday's APO programme is dominated by the Second Symphony of Sibelius, a composer not frequently encountered in the concert halls of Ashkenazy's youth. In fact, he was introduced to this music by his Icelandic wife, Thorunn, just before they married.

"She had come to study in Russia and, being very fond of Sibelius, played me a tape of this Second Symphony," he recalls. "I'd never heard it before but I was very impressed. I went on to find recordings of other works, such as the Fifth Symphony and the Violin Concerto."

Ashkenazy would eventually record the complete symphonies in the late 70s and early 80s in performances that had one critic recommending them for punters who like their Sibelius "to blaze and sparkle, with a bass that could turn molybdenum to dust".

Yet, he has described these works as music indelibly linked with a Finnish landscape and mindset. In a television documentary last year, he was quick to point out this influence was far from a superficial one; Sibelius' conception of nature was what we are and what surrounds us, what's in our very hearts and minds.

The Finnish composer develops this into his own idiom, Ashkenazy explains. "And it draws on a tremendous potential, because nature is not just lyrical and gorgeous - there are thunderstorms, oceans and heaven knows what - and he catches all of that in his music."

Finally, he's determined to tell me a story and it's a true one, I'm assured, describing Sibelius coming out of his house and being overcome by a vision of circling birds and wonderful blue skies.

"He quickly went back inside and started to work on his Fifth Symphony," he laughs. "It's a touching story, that one, and very significant."

What: Ashkenazy, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 8pm