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Nikolai Golovanov’s early years were spent as a choir boy in religious institutions, notably the Moscow Synodal School where he studied choral conducting, his teachers including Orlov and Kastalsky. He qualified as a singing teacher at the school and made his conducting debut there in 1909, directing the Synodal Choir in Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. In the same year he entered the Moscow Conservatory where he studied theory and composition with Ilyinsky, Ippolitov-Ivanov and Vassilenko. At the Conservatory Golovanov met and befriended Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninov. He later said that Scriabin ‘…opened new, yet unknown worlds... and literally stunned me by the novelty in (his) harmony and peculiar features of orchestra texture,’ while of Rachmaninov he recalled that ‘…his profound dramatism excited me, and I was enchanted by his gentle, fragrant lyrics.’ He graduated in 1914, and later began work at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, making his conducting debut there in October 1915 with Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Tsar Saltan.

Appointed assistant chorusmaster at the Bolshoi, Golovanov soon expanded his conducting repertoire to include Borodin’s Prince Igor, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, and two then-contemporary works, Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges and Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka. (When Prokofiev played through his opera on the piano at the Bolshoi in 1927, he was astonished to see Golovanov swiftly and accurately translate all of his tempi into metronome values.) Between 1919 and 1928 Golovanov served as the Bolshoi Theatre’s chief conductor; he also was professor of opera and of orchestra at the Moscow Conservatory between 1925 and 1929, and chief conductor and artistic director of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra from 1926 to 1929.

In 1929, Golovanov was appointed director of broadcasting at Moscow Radio, with special responsibility for broadcasts of opera. He became chief conductor of the All-Union Radio Symphony Orchestra, also known as the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, in 1937, and in 1938 chief conductor of the Stanislavsky Opera Theatre, formerly the Bolshoi Theatre’s Opera Studio, which he had helped to found in 1919. He returned to the Moscow Conservatory as a professor between 1943 and 1944, and in 1948 to the Bolshoi Theatre as chief conductor, where he conducted and helped to stage productions of Boris Godunov, Sadko and Khovanshchina. He was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1946, 1949, 1950 and 1951.

While a friendly person away from the conducting podium, once on it Golovanov was renowned for a fierce temper which brooked little opposition. He resisted moves to politicise the repertoire of the Bolshoi Theatre during the late 1920s, and performed music by his contemporaries Rachmaninov and Scriabin, even when they were not officially approved of by the ruling Communist party. However, following rumours of dissatisfaction on the part of the Kremlin, then occupied by Joseph Stalin, Golovanov was summarily dismissed from his post at the Bolshoi in 1952. The shock of this was so great that, unable to withstand what he saw as a major humiliation, he died the following year.

Golovanov was a prolific composer, writing an opera, a symphony, various orchestral works, and numerous songs, many of which were performed by his wife, the distinguished soprano Antonina Nezhdanova. As a conductor his interpretations were characterised by a wilfulness that now appears to be extreme, but which when listened to with an open mind, is undeniably highly effective. In reply to a hostile critic, he once said, ‘This is my hearing of music, and be it fermatas, caesuras, dynamics or changes of tempo, they are my own interpretation. If you take all this away, my handwriting as an artist will disappear.’ Members of the Bolshoi company have recalled that he was exciting but never easy to work with, because he had a very special vision of the music with which he was involved at any one time. An anecdote about his choral conducting illustrates his temperament well. Even when directing very large choirs of more than one hundred and fifty members he would cry out, ‘Where is everyone?! Why is the stage so empty?! I can’t hear a real honest-to-goodness choir here!’

Through his work with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra many of Golovanov’s galvanic performances have been preserved. Of particular interest are his accounts of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pathétique’ and 1812 Overture; Scriabin’s symphonies (Nos 1 to 3, The Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus) and Piano Concerto (with another Russian musical legend as soloist: Heinrich Neuhaus, the teacher of Sviatoslav Richter); Liszt’s symphonic poems Festklänge, Hungaria, Hunnenschlacht, Mazeppa, Orpheus, Prometheus and Tasso; Glazunov’s Symphonies Nos 5, 6 and 7; Rachmaninov’s Symphonies Nos 2 and 3, and orchestral excerpts from the operas of Richard Wagner. Golovanov’s operatic recordings are especially outstanding. They include superb accounts of works by Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov), Rimsky-Korsakov (Sadko, Christmas Eve, May Night) and Rachmaninov (Aleko).

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

Role: Conductor 
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