The former principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Vienna SO, USSR Ministry of Culture SO and Royal Stockholm PO was 87. The Moscow-born Rozhdestvensky came from a musical family - his father Nikolai Anosov was a conductor and teacher, his mother Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya a soprano (Rozhdestvensky adopted his mother’s name because, as a conductor, he didn’t want the family connection to be seen as having helped his career). He studied at the Moscow Conservatory before making his name, at 20, conducting at the Bolshoi Theatre, a house he maintained a long association with (in 2000 he would be appointed General Artistic Director of the theatre).
A champion of music by living composers, Rozhdestvensky conducted numerous world premieres, Russian and Western premieres including the first Russian performances of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the first performance outside of Russia of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony (in Edinburgh in 1964). He also performed the first cycle of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies in Russia.
As a conductor he had a fine stick technique and a way of inspiring his musicians to play better than they thought they could - he did not believe in over-rehearsing, preferring the inspiration of the moment to bring off some very impressive concerts. ‘The point of rehearsal is to put together the concert,’ he told the French film-maker Bruno Monsaingeon, ‘not to give the concert. The concert brings with it an emotional intensity that couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be there beforehand, and I like to keep back a bit of improvisation on the night.’
In an Icons article in Gramophone (April 2016) Peter Quantrill wrote that ‘the symphonies of Prokofiev, Roussel, Sibelius, Schnittke and Vaughan Williams are essential listening not for interpretative revelation or novelty but to marvel at a subversively balletic approach to symphonic structures where the narrative line is paramount. Shostakovich finds him in his element, especially the circus and cemetery of the Fourth Symphony, which has been an unlikely business card down the years.’
Rozdestvensky was married to the pianist Viktoria Postnikova with whom he recorded the Tchaikovsky piano concertos in Vienna for Decca. His extensive discography embraces numerous labels, a significant number being made for Chandos. Many of his BBC performances are also available on the ICA Classics Legacy label.
Home page photo: Rayfield Allied/Wladimir Polak