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(1928 - 2002)

The Russian conductor Evgeny Svetlanov was a major figure in the world of Soviet music, which he outlived by thirteen years. He was born in Moscow in 1928 into a theatrical family. His parents were both members of the company of the Bolshoi Theatre, the home of opera and ballet in the capital, his father as a singer and his mother as a mime artist. Some of his earliest memories were of appearing on the stage of this great theatre: ‘I made my first appearance on the Bolshoi stage at the age of three as the son of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Then I sang in the children’s choir of the Bolshoi.’ He entered the Gnessin Institute for musically gifted children, where he studied composition with Mikhail Gnessin himself and piano with Mariya Gurvich, a pupil of the composer and pianist Nikolai Medtner, of whose music Svetlanov was to become a distinguished interpreter. In 1951 he graduated from the Institute and progressed to the Moscow Conservatory, where he continued to study the piano with Heinrich Neuhaus, whose most famous pupil was Sviatoslav Richter. Svetlanov later cited Neuhaus as a major influence, who taught him to think of the piano in orchestral terms. In addition he studied composition with Yuri Shaporin as well as conducting with Alexander Gauk.

While still a student Svetlanov began his conducting career in 1953 with the All-Union Radio Symphony Orchestra, later known as the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which Gauk was chief conductor. In the same year he began work at the Bolshoi Theatre: ‘I joined my favourite theatre as a conductor after a contest chaired by the great conductor Melik-Pashayev. My first opera at the Bolshoi was Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov in 1953. That was my own choice. During my first decade at the Bolshoi I progressed from a conductor on probation to chief conductor.’ In her memoirs the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya has suggested that Svetlanov’s rise to the top position at the Bolshoi in 1962 was the result of political lobbying at high levels, namely through the Central Committee and Yekaterina Furtseva, the then Minister of Culture. Although in this instance a beneficiary of such patronage, on two later occasions Svetlanov was to feel the negative consequences of the arbitrary political decision-making so typical of the Soviet era. The first of these incidents happened after only two years at the musical helm of the Bolshoi, when following a successful tour of the company in 1964 to La Scala, Milan, Svetlanov was relieved of his position as chief conductor. ‘That was a sad event I’d rather forget,’ he later recalled.

However, he soon returned to a significant musical position with his appointment in the following year as chief conductor of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. Founded in 1935, the orchestra had had only three principal conductors before Svetlanov: Gauk, Nathan Rakhlin and Konstantin Ivanov. Svetlanov was to remain as head of this orchestra for thirty-five years, making it a distinct force in Russian musical life. The conductor Valery Gergiev described it under Svetlanov as being ‘an orchestra with a voice’. With it Svetlanov largely succeeded in his ambition of recording much of the Russian orchestral literature of value from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Then from 1970 onwards he started to conduct in the West, appearing quite often in London, initially with the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he was principal guest conductor from 1979 for several years, and later with the Philharmonia. He conducted Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1984.

The advent of perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet system radically changed the environment in which Svetlanov worked. Gradually many of his orchestral players emigrated to the West seeking higher salaries and better conditions, and he himself took permanent positions with The Hague Residentie Orchestra (1992–2000) in Holland and with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (1997–2001). These factors triggered ministerial interference once again in 2000, when the Minister for Culture Mikhail Shvydkoi relieved Svetlanov of his post with what was now the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, but which many Russians called simply ‘the Svetlanov Orchestra’. Once again Svetlanov’s reaction was understandably intense – ‘he looked like a mighty oak tree with its roots sawn off’ – but he continued to work, commenting: ‘I work as if to test my tensile strength. This is the case with the Symphony Orchestra of The Netherlands, with the Orchestra of Radio Japan, NHK, and with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. Everywhere I am trying to remain my old self.’ Two weeks before his death in Moscow in May 2002, he had conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London in a memorable account of Rachmaninov’s cantata The Bells, perhaps physically less vigorous than in the past, but musically as energetic and impassioned as ever.

Evgeny Svetlanov was a highly professional and disciplined musician. As a composer whose style looked back to the world of Rachmaninov, whom he revered, his most notable works included his Symphony (1956), the Siberian Fantasy for orchestra (1953), and the Piano Concerto (1951), as well as incidental music for plays and film scores. He had no illusions as to his musical character: ‘In music, I am conservative. Apparently, I am one of the last Romantics. I want to have my soul, not only my head, involved in the music I perform.’ Although both a pupil and professional successor of Alexander Gauk, the conductor whom Svetlanov revered most was another legendary former chief of the Bolshoi Theatre, Nikolai Golovanov. As Olga Fydorova has noted, he had admired Golovanov greatly as a boy, and from him learnt how to energize an audience and to work it up to a state of ecstasy. Like Golovanov he was a master at the careful shaping of music and the creation of overwhelming climaxes, as well as a visceral style of playing that in some ways mirrored both the Soviet experience and values, although its roots probably pre-dated the Russian Revolution. From the perspective of the orchestral player he could be very particular about details, but in general said little. His own comments about his conducting are revealing: ‘When at the conductor’s stand, I speak very little… The ideal conductor is a dumb one, but, surely, not a deaf one. When conducting, you’ll do better by talking not about music but about some non-musical situations. This helps a lot.’ With the USSR State Symphony Orchestra Svetlanov developed an orchestral sound and palette of tonal colours that were uniquely Russian in character. The overall results of his careful preparation could be awe-inspiring. The American critic Harold Schoenberg, reviewing a 1969 New York performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 ‘Pathétique’, noted that ‘…there was discipline, there was power, and there was a spirit to the playing that made the work an absorbing experience.’

Svetlanov’s repertoire and discography were large. In addition to the full range of Russian orchestral music, he was an expert conductor of non-Russian composers of the late Romantic era, such as Bruckner, Mahler and Elgar, drawing out the drama inherent within their music through masterly structural control, saturated string tone and overwhelming brass playing. As another New York critic, James Oestreich, has commented, ‘He finds blood and guts even in the smallish and unassuming Fourth Symphony (of Mahler), where others seek relative brightness and cheer.’

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

View by Role: Classical Composer | Conductor
Role: Classical Composer 
Album Title  Catalogue No  Work Category 
Role: Conductor 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
BRAHMS, J.: Symphony No. 3 / DEBUSSY, C.: La Mer / CHAUSSON, E.: La mort de l'amour (Baker, London Symphony, Svetlanov) ICA Classics
Vocal, Orchestral
Ballet DVD
Orchestral Music - SIBELIUS, J. / GLAZUNOV, A.K. / GRIEG, E. / SVENDSEN, J. (White Nights - Music of Tranquil Beauty) Ondine
Ballet, Orchestral, Ballet
Orchestral Music (Russian) - KHACHATURIAN, A.I. / PROKOFIEV,S. / GLAZUNOV, A.K. / TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I. (Russian Adagios) Ondine
Ballet, Orchestral, Ballet
RACHMANINOV, S.: Bells (The) / PROKOFIEV, S.: Alexander Nevsky (Svetlanov) (1998, 2002) ICA Classics
Choral - Secular, Film and TV Music
RACHMANINOV, S.: Symphony No. 2 / BERNSTEIN, L.: Candide: Overture (Svetlanov) ICA Classics
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Golden Cockerel (The) / Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1961) Naxos Classical Archives
SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphony No. 10 (USSR State Symphony, Svetlanov) (1968) ICA Classics
TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Symphony No. 1, "Winter Daydreams" / STRAVINSKY, I.: Firebird Suite (1945 verson) (BBC Symphony, Philharmonia Orchestra, Svetlanov) ICA Classics
TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker (The) (Royal Ballet, 2000) (NTSC) Opus Arte
Ballet DVD
TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker (The) (Royal Ballet, 2000) (PAL) Opus Arte
Ballet DVD
TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake / The Nutcracker / The Sleeping Beauty (NTSC) Opus Arte
Ballet DVD

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