Obituary, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (1931-2018)
The Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky has died aged 87.
Gennady Nikolayevich Anosov was born in Moscow on 4th May 1931 to the conductor Nikolai Anosov and the soprano Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya (whose surname he adopted professionally in its masculine form so as not to trade on his famous father's name). He studied with his father and made his debut conducting Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at the Bolshoi aged just twenty; he would later serve as the orchestra’s principal conductor from 1964 to 1970, and became artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre in 2000 (though he resigned from the position after just one season following friction with the Russian press and difficulties within the company).
From the very beginning of his career, Rozhdestvensky was particularly renowned in Russian repertoire, particularly the music of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich; he gave the UK premiere of the latter’s Fourth Symphony at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival, and spearheaded the revival of his controversial opera The Nose (which Rozhdestvensky cited as his favourite work) in 1974. He was an impassioned advocate of new orchestral music, conducting a significant amount of world premieres (including works by Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Rodion Shchedrin and John Tavener) as well as a staunch champion of the complete and original versions of cornerstones of the Russian repertoire such as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty and Prokofiev’s War and Peace.
Even at the height of the Cold War, Rozhdestvensky moved back and forth across the Iron Curtain with an almost unprecedented amount of freedom (though in correspondence and conversation he indicated that he lived in constant fear of that freedom being withdrawn); during the 1970s and 80s he held positions with the Wiener Symphoniker, the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, and in 1978 he became the first Russian to hold the position of principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And his commitment to facilitating cultural exchange was by no means one-sided – in addition to flying the flag for Russian composers in the West, he also conducted the Russian premiere of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bolshoi in 1965, and a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies in Leningrad in the late 1980s (the live recordings are now available on the Melodiya label).
Despite his affinity with dark, often bleak and acerbic repertoire, Rozhdestvensky was known for a relaxed, at times almost zany platform manner and for the value he placed on spontaneity – he preferred to work with relatively limited rehearsal-time (and to avoid multiple takes in the recording studio), allowing plenty of leeway for spur-of-the-moment inspiration and adrenaline rather than micro-managing every aspect of a performance in advance.
Rozhdestvensky was married to the pianist Viktoria Postnikova, with whom he made numerous recordings, including the Tchaikovsky concertos with the Wiener Symphoniker and works by Tischenko, Prokofiev, Busoni and Scriabin. He is survived by his wife and their violinist son Sasha, currently a professor at London’s Royal College of Music; father and son recorded Glazunov’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich 1 together with the State Symphony Capella of Russia in 2010.
Rozhdestvensky's honours and accolades included the Order of Merit for the Fatherland, the Order of Lenin, the Russian Federation State Prize, and the title of Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire, which was bestowed in 2014. At the time of his death he was chief guest conductor of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.