Samosud studied the cello at the Tiflis Conservatory, graduating in 1906. It has been suggested that he then spent several years in Paris studying the cello with Pablo Casals, composition with Vincent d’Indy and conducting with Édouard Colonne: certainly he was a cellist in several symphony orchestras in St Petersburg until 1917, when he started to conduct at the Maryinsky Theatre. Following the Russian Revolution and the renaming of the city as Leningrad, he was appointed chief conductor of the Maly Theatre in 1918, retaining this position until 1936. Here he encouraged young Soviet composers, to the extent that the Maly Theatre was known as ‘the laboratory of Soviet opera’. Among the new works given their first performances there by him were Shostakovich’s The Nose, in 1930, and Dzerzhinsky’s And Quiet Flows the Don, in 1935. During this period he also taught conducting at the Leningrad Conservatory.
In 1936 Samosud’s career took a major leap forward when he was appointed as chief conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where he was able to give full rein to his considerable organisational and musical capabilities. In particular he continued his policy of support for the leading composers of the day, conducting the first performance of Dzerzhinsky’s Virgin Soil there in 1937. After being unexpectedly dismissed from his post at the Bolshoi in 1943, he became instead chief conductor of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre where he conducted both the original and revised versions of Kabalevsky’s The Taras Family (1947 and 1951). An important champion of Prokofiev’s works, particularly his operas, Samosud tried to stage the composer’s Betrothal in a Monastery at the Bolshoi during World War II, but the logistical difficulties proved to be too great to bring this project to fruition. He was also a strong and consistent supporter of Prokofiev’s finest opera, War and Peace; and despite a generally negative reaction to a preview of the work at the All Composers’ Union, he conducted an abbreviated version in 1944. After Prokofiev himself became too ill to conduct, Samosud became his preferred interpreter.
In 1951 he was invited to form a new orchestra under the aegis of the All-Union Radio Committee. As this organisation already had one orchestra to its name (the All-Union Radio Orchestra), Samosud moved responsibility for his new orchestra to the Moscow Philharmonic Society in 1953, renamed it as the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, and served as its chief conductor until 1957. He continued his advocacy of Prokofiev’s music, conducting the first performance of the Symphony No. 7 in 1952. Awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941, 1947 and 1952, Samosud became afflicted by paralysis during the last years of his life which prevented him from conducting.
On the evidence of his recordings Samosud was a most dynamic conductor, able to invest a wide variety of works with remarkable energy and intensity without ever succumbing to lapses of musical taste. His recordings of opera for the state record label Melodya were extensive and included strong accounts of operas by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky, as well as by other European composers including Gluck, Puccini, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner. He also recorded the music of several composers of operetta, such as Johann Strauss II and Kálmán. Recordings of his orchestral conducting included an immensely powerful account of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Emil Gilels, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the composer as soloist, and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 and the cantata Alexander Nevsky.