GENNADY ROZHDESTVENSKY (1931 - 2018)
Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s parents were both musicians of the highest calibre: his father was the conductor Nikolai Anosov, a major musician of the Soviet era, a fine pianist, and a composer who spoke ten languages; and his mother was the soprano Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya, a star of the Bolshoi Opera, whose name he adopted. He studied first at the Gnessin Institute of Music, and then at the Moscow Conservatory; here he was a piano pupil of Lev Oborin, and a conducting pupil of his own father. When Rozhdestvensky was twenty he made his public debut at the Bolshoi Theatre conducting Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, having already achieved distinction as the conductor of prizewinning student orchestras at international music competitions in Bucharest and Berlin. He served as a conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre between 1951 and 1961, assisting the distinguished conductor of the ballet company, Yuri Fayer; deputising for an ailing Samuel Samosud in an early performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in 1955; first visiting Great Britain with the Bolshoi’s ballet company in 1956; and, together with Alexander Melik-Pashayev, leading the first performances at the Bolshoi of Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace in 1959. During the 1960s he held two major posts in Russian musical life: between 1961 and 1974 he was chief conductor of the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, also known as the All-Union Radio and Television Orchestra, and from 1964 to 1970 he was chief conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre. Major musical landmarks of this period included the first Russian performances of Benjamin Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bolshoi in 1965, and an electrifying account of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1970.
After helping to found the Moscow Chamber Opera in 1972 and serving as the company’s first music director, Rozhdestvensky conducted abroad a great deal. He succeeded Antal Dorati as chief conductor of the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in 1974, remaining with this orchestra until 1977, after which he became chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1978 to 1981. He left London to become chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra between 1981 and 1983; while in Vienna he maintained an important Russian tradition by teaching conducting at the Vienna Academy of Music, having already been professor of conducting at the Moscow Conservatory. He was later to continue to teach, at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena from 1987. Rozhdestvensky returned to a permanent appointment in Russia in 1982 when the Ministry of Culture formed a symphony orchestra, named after itself, for him to lead. With this orchestra he recorded a large discography, including the complete symphonies of Shostakovich, Glazunov, Bruckner, Schnittke and Honegger. Between 1991 and 1995 Rozhdestvensky returned to the helm of the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra as its chief conductor; and he was also to return to the Bolshoi Theatre for its 2000–2001 season as artistic director for both the ballet and opera companies, the first such appointment in the theatre’s history. His period there culminated with the world première of the original version of Prokofiev’s opera The Gambler. In 1969 Rozhdestvensky married the brilliant pianist Viktoria Postnikova, who first shot to fame at the Leeds International Piano Competition; their son is the internationally acclaimed violinist Alexander, or Sasha, Rozhdestvensky.
As an interpreter Rozhdestvensky combines a high degree of spontaneity with a grand sense of gesture and an infallible placing of climaxes, resulting in highly satisfying and individual performances. He is a master of baton technique, often using a long stick, which, when combined with his expansive gestures, has a mesmeric as well as a commanding effect upon both orchestras and audiences. His vast musical appetite and his unfailing enthusiasm for twentieth-century Russian composers are most clearly displayed in his discography, which is enormous and chronicles his career in considerable detail. In addition to the numerous recordings which he made for the Soviet state record company, Melodya, there are numerous live recordings from the Soviet period in his career, many of which well illustrate his extraordinary command of the orchestra. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union Rozhdestvensky has recorded extensively for many different labels, most notably Chandos. Rozhdestvensky is a musician of the highest calibre and a true master of his art, whose recordings of contemporary Russian music are both authoritative and empathetic.