Why you should vote for Kondrashin to join the Gramophone Hall of Fame
Kirill Kondrashin was a quintessentially Russian conductor and yet one who sounded unlike any other. His fame in the West used to rest on a set of Shostakovich's symphonies with the Moscow Philharmonic. No less than performances by Mravinsky or Rostropovich, they gain authority from an intimate knowledge of their creator, but they have something extra, which is a sense of the dramatic potential in Shostakovich's music that was so brutally cut short by the reception given to Lady Macbeth in 1936, and subsequently channelled into his 'abstract' works. It is fitting that Kondrashin was the man to give the belated first performance of the Fourth Symphony, which shares the opera's baleful soundworld, and there is no other account that so fully lives up to the work's potential to sound like a whole (Mahlerian) world on the edge of terror. For Kondrashin was an opera conductor and concerto accompanist of sublime sympathy. Recordings of Oistrakh and others testify to the latter gift; alas, we have little more than personal accounts of the former.
Happily, recordings of Western concerts, mostly given with local orchestras after he defected in 1978, offer a fuller picture of Kondrashin as a conductor of wide sympathies and distinctive musical personality. In the central symphonic repertoire from Haydn to Sibelius, he secured swift tempos, highly articulated string parts and Straussian control over the brass. He cultivated an interpretative temperament of unrelenting intensity that never sacrificed grace. As a Mahler conductor, then, he stood outside the central European or émigré traditions but brought a new and still-refreshing, text-centred authority to this music.
I happened to speak to an experienced orchestral musician recently. The tricky subject of charisma came up, and the only time he had experienced genuine charisma, said my interlocutor, was playing in the National Youth Orchestra under Kondrashin (who by then had emigrated). He walked into the hall, and it fell silent. He was quiet, unfailingly polite, and yet everyone played on the edge of their seats, all the time. You can hear this in his recordings, and not just the Russian classics. His fatal heart attack in 1981, just as he had found personal happiness in the West, and orchestras more than ready to rehearse and play for him, was a tragedy and remains so for what we lost.
Gregor Tassie's book (Kirill Kondrashin: His Life in Music, Scarecrow Press, 2010) will do as an introduction, and so will those Shostakovich recordings, but Anglophone listeners urgently need a translation of the conductor's own book on his craft, and will hope that radio stations on both sides of the Atlantic continue to open up their archives.