The 20th-century award-winning Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin led a successful career with both Soviet and Western theatres, operas and symphony orchestras. He was a brilliant interpreter of both Russian and Western European music and held positions at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.
Kondrashin was born in Moscow on 6 March 1914 into a family of orchestral musicians. Both of his parents were string players in the orchestras of Serge Koussevitzky and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. As a young child, Kirill Kondrashin began piano lessons. He also studied music theory with the influential Nikolay Zhilyayev at the Musical Teknikum in Moscow. At the age of 14, having already spent many hours witnessing rehearsals, Kondrashin decided to pursue a conducting career, studying from 1932 to 1936 at the Moscow Conservatory with Boris Khaikin, who was just three years his senior.
In 1931, Kondrashin made his professional conducting debut at Moscow’s Children’s Theatre. He also served as assistant conductor at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre beginning in 1934. His first performance there was with Planquette’sLes Cloches de Corneville.
After completing his studies with Khaikin, who had become the chief conductor at the Malïy Theatre in Leningrad, Kondrashin was appointed his assistant, serving from 1936 to 1943. There, he led successful performances of Pashchenko’s Pompadour, Puccini’s La fanciulla del West and Cheremukhin’s Kalinki.
Kondrashin received an honorary diploma in 1938 at the First All-Union Competition of Conductors for his ‘high professional skill and virtuoso technique’. One of the music critics wrote, ‘I was particularly impressed by the young conductor’s [Kondrashin] ability to work with the orchestra. Eschewing wordiness, Kondrashin achieves understanding by precise gesture rather than oratory’.
Following Germany’s invasion of Russia, many important artists were evacuated from Leningrad, including Kondrashin, who went to the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, which was actually outside of the city at the time. From 1943 until 1956, he served as a conductor at the Bol’Shoy Theatre, working with great conductors such as Samosud, Pazovsky and Golovanov. While there, Kondrashin gained much practical experience, greatly improved his operatic interpretation and had the opportunity to stage new productions. For his excellent contributions to Russian culture, he was awarded the Stalin Prize two years in a row (1948 and 1949).
Memorable recordings with the Bolshoi Theatre include Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Ludmilla.
Outside of the theatre, he also appeared during this period with many of the country’s top symphony orchestras conducting works by Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Wagner, among others. He became one of the most well-regarded interpreters of Russian music from the 19th and 20th centuries, even attracting the attention of Dmitri Shostakovich after a wonderful performance of his Symphony no. 1.
After leaving the Bolshoi Theatre in 1956, Kondrashin continued to focus on symphonic performances. He was especially successful with concertos, collaborating with soloists such as David Oistrakh, Richter, Rostropovich, Gilels and Kogan. He also received recognition for his performance with Van Cliburn in 1958 at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. That same year, he made both his American and British debuts.
Recordings from this period include piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky performed by Van Cliburn, selling millions of copies in America alone. The Tchaikovsky recording (on the RCA Victor label) received the honour of being the first classical LP to go platinum. He also recorded piano concertos from Prokofiev, Liszt and Saint- Saëns, in addition to a violin concerto from Brahms.
Kondrashin was appointed artistic director of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in 1960, a position he held for 15 years. It was there that he established himself as one of the foremost conductors of both Russian and Western symphonic music. During this period he was able to combine what he learned at the theatre with the symphonic repertoire, resulting in programmatic interpretations of the music.
The beginning of his time with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra also marked a new phase in Kondrashin’s conducting technique, as he abandoned the baton at this point, demanding instead that orchestra closely follow his subtle hand movements. He was known to mime, move only his fingers or even convey the message just through the expression of his eyes.
Most impressive from this were Kondrashin’s interpretations of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, which differ greatly from most modern interpretations, as they are much more stoic and restrained. He also premiered both the fourth and thirteenth of Shostakovich’s symphonies along with other works by Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Sviridov, Shchedrin, Boris Chaykovsky, Weinberg and others. In addition, he performed works from the Classical period and from composers such as Bartók and Hindemith. He was the first conductor ever to conduct all 15 of Shostakovich’s symphonies in just two seasons.
With the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kondrashin was able to achieve a very high artistic level and tour many countries. Among the many awards he received during this period was his 1972 People’s Artist of the Soviet Union award, the highest possible artistic honour from the Soviet Union.
A performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra reunited Van Cliburn and Kondrashin in 1972. The performance was later released by RCA Victor on CD together with a recording of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Another notable recording is that with Byron Janis on the Mercury label. Their interpretation of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 is still considered by many to be the greatest yet. Other recordings include the symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich and the Piano Concerto no. 2 from Rachmaninov.
In December of 1978, Kondrashin’s standing with the Soviet government was drastically affected when he requested asylum in the Netherlands, claiming that his artistic freedom was being stifled in his home country. In response, the Soviet government banned all of his recordings.
Kondrashin was soon (in 1979) appointed the permanent guest conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, a position he held until his unexpected death in 1981. During these short years, he was also able to establish a connection with the Wiener Philharmoniker.
Recordings from this final phase in Kondrashin’s career include radio broadcasts with the Concertgebouw Orchestra playing works such as Scriabin’s Symphony no. 3 ‘The Divine Poem’ and the concertos for cello and clarinet by Paul Hindemith. They also recorded Rimsky-Korsakov’sScheherazade and Borodin’s Symphony no. 2. Some of the live concerts have since been released by Philips Records. One of his final recordings was of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 ‘New World’ with the Wiener Philharmoniker.
While Kondrashin was innovative in the sense that he gladly performed new works, he considered himself to be a follower of great conductors who aimed to put their own stamp on an orchestra’s sound and style. He was appreciated for his ability to find a balance in texture and dynamics in the music and for his brilliant interpretations of Western music, better than any other Russian conductor.
In addition to conducting, Kondrashin also taught at the Moscow Conservatory for a number of years before leaving the country. Many of his articles on conducting were published in 1972 inO dirizhyorskom iskusstve (‘On the art of conducting’). He married his assistant, Nolda Broekstra, in the Netherlands, though he died shortly thereafter, after a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1981.