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Both a composer and a conductor, Alexander Melik-Pashayev studied initially with Nikolai Tcherepnin at the Tbilisi Conservatory and joined the Tbilisi Opera in 1921 as a répétiteur and as leader of the orchestra before being promoted to the position of conductor in 1924. Further formal study of conducting with Alexander Gauk at the Leningrad Conservatory followed between 1928 and 1930, the year in which Melik-Pashayev returned to the Tbilisi Opera as chief conductor. He joined the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow as a conductor in 1931, making his debut with Verdi’s Aida, and worked there steadily in this capacity until 1953, when he replaced Nikolai Golovanov as chief conductor, following the latter’s unceremonious sacking.

Unlike his two predecessors, Samosud and Golovanov, Melik-Pashayev conducted a considerable number of operas from the Western repertoire by composers such as Verdi, Bizet, Massenet, Puccini, and Leoncavallo, as well as those by Russian composers. He also did much to introduce new operas into the Bolshoi’s repertoire, conducting for instance works by Shaporin and Kabalevsky, and in 1954 conducted the first performance of Shostakovich’s Festival Overture. Melik-Pashayev had very high standards indeed: when the distinguished German conductor Hermann Abendroth was invited to conduct Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Bolshoi he was stunned by the exceptional quality of the company’s production. Having made his debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden with Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades in 1961, Melik-Pashayev returned the following year to conduct immensely exciting and superbly proportioned performances of Verdi’s Aida, with Galina Vishnevskaya in the title role.

His reign at the Bolshoi came to an unexpected end in 1962 when, like Samosud and Golovanov before him, he found himself summarily dismissed. One day, stopping by the Bolshoi’s billboard for the next month, he did not see his name there and knew that was it: he was succeeded by Evgeny Svetlanov and died two years later. Fortunately Melik-Pashayev’s very considerable art is preserved through a relatively high number of complete recordings of operatic productions from the Bolshoi. These include Beethoven’s Fidelio, Bizet’s Carmen (a live recording with Irina Arkhipova and Mario del Monaco), Borodin’s Prince Igor, Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (two versions, with the basses George London and Ivan Petrov in the title role), Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Rubinstein’s The Demon, Shaporin’s The Decembrists, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades and The Slippers, and Verdi’s Aida and Falstaff. He also shared the conducting of a fine pre-war recording of Eugene Onegin with Alexander Orlov. Melik-Pashayev’s non-operatic recordings were few in number, but included an exceptionally fervent account of Verdi’s Requiem with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and a finely moulded reading of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pathétique’ with the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

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