Gennady Rozhdestvensky, 4th May 1931 - 16th June 2018

16 June 2018

We mourn the passing of the great conductor and friend Gennady Rozhdestvensky and send our deepest condolences to his family and friends. Please read the New York Times obituary here by Vivien Schweitzer.

Robert Slotover has also written a personal appreciation in his memory:

"I had the honour to represent the great conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky from 1984 until his death on June 16th, 2018. I also had the pleasure of attending his concerts and performances from 1962-on when as a teenager I heard him conduct the Western premiere of Shostakovich’s 4th symphony at the Edinburgh Festival with the Philharmonia Orchestra. An unforgettable experience.

Rozhdestvensky was interested in art. He was the only great musician I have met who knew all visual art, theatre, film and literature as well as music. He regarded all art as one. This immense culture informed all his performances and was a part of what made him one of the greatest conductors of his day or any day.

He didn’t possess a mobile phone or computer but had a library so extensive as to require a second flat in his building in Moscow. His answer to a question as to whether he knew some particularly obscure symphony by some unknown composer would be ‘which version?’ His compatriot, the dramaturg and author Viktor Borovsky used to say ‘an hour with Gennady Nikolaevich is like a year at university.’

He wore his erudition quite lightly and was normally kindly and humorous but he prickled when underestimated by ignorant persons of which there tended to be many in the musical world. He preferred a world where everyone would be more culturally aware but paradoxically (and paradox was an old friend of his), he would have nothing to do with publicity and did all he could to avoid interviews. An interviewer had to be someone with some kind of track record of their own as an author or musician. The questions had to be submitted in advance and the interview conducted in Russian despite his English being excellent. It is not surprising that on his last appearance in New York a few years ago (a concert performance of ‘The Tsar’s Bride’ with Bolshoi forces at Carnegie Hall) some expressed surprise that he was still alive.

There were always wonderful stories that followed him. On one occasion after a successful concert with an opera house orchestra, the director asked him what he would like to conduct next. ‘Servilia,’ came the answer. ‘What is that?’ ‘It’s an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov set in Rome. It’s hardly ever done and has never been recorded.’ ‘Why is it never done?’ ‘Because the musical world is full of stupid people.’ This last rejoinder had clearly been calculated and was delivered with Rozhdestvensky’s best Cheshire cat smile.

In my conversations with orchestra managers the fear he would not rehearse was often expressed. This was a bit of a minefield because as Rozhdestvensky said ‘when I go to a restaurant and they ask me how I would like my steak cooked I say underdone.’ His stick technique was one of the best in the business and he could play on the orchestra as if it were his instrument but if he felt an orchestra wasn’t paying him due attention in rehearsal he would cut them short so they came to the concert platform with especial concentration. Paradoxically (again) if they were too good in rehearsal he would cut them short on the grounds ‘if they don’t need to rehearse, why to rehearse?.’ Again the Cheshire cat grin.

Some thought leaving a rehearsal early or even cancelling it altogether was out of laziness but Rozhdestvensky was anything but lazy. His free time would be occupied by writing (he is the author of several books and was working on a large project on conducting when he died) and was also a quite prolific arranger and composer of works he never promoted or even performed. He would also be down the second-hand and antiquarian bookshops returning to Moscow with numerous heavy suitcases packed with books and CDs. He had the real collector’s kleptomania. It was dangerous to show him anything printed because it would be taken and vanish into a black hole.

When Stravinsky returned to Russia (the Soviet Union) in the 1960s Rozhdestvensky was able to give him a score of Debussy’s Nocturnes dedicated to Stravinsky and lost after the revolution. Stravinsky was overcome with gratitude, saying he only had two things from Debussy, a score of ‘Pelleas’ and this, which he never thought he would see again. Rozhdestvensky had found it in a second-hand bookshop and had bought it for a few kopeks.

An anglophile through and through. Rozhdestvensky delighted in playing English music in Russia and Russian music in the UK. He did this through all political vicissitudes sometimes in the face of persecution by the Soviet authorites particularly in the case of Tavener’s Akhmatova Requiem (Akhmatova’s poem was still banned in the USSR). He performed the entire Vaughan Williams symphonies in Leningrad and Polotsk and organised a huge festival of British music ‘Albion in the mist’ over 3 years in Moscow featuring all four Tippett symphonies and many works unknown even in the UK such as Stanford’s opera ‘The Rivals’ especially translated and sung in Russian. In the UK, he performed the works of Schnittke in particular but also Gubaidulina, Tischenko, and others. It was initiatives like this spread over many years that contributed to bringing Russia together with other nations. He was politically ‘one of the good guys’ and was able to make a difference because the Soviet authorities considered him too big to push around the way they did other artists. When the state concert agency demanded he submit his programmes before going on tour in the West, he delighted in listing Beethoven’s Flute concerto and so forth and seeing these titles rubber-stamped by the bureaucrats.

He had quite a few interesting quirks one of which was a wish to conduct in every country in the world. These forays didn’t always end well as in his attempt to conduct a concert in Egypt. In one interview he did actually give he mused that orchestras seemed to get better the further north you go. This resulted in an invitation to conduct the Iceland Symphony Orchestra which he accepted readily. Finding them indeed a first rate ensemble he enjoyed a regular association with them in later years. I was asked to check flights from Reykjavik to Greenland on one occasion but I suspect he knew there were no orchestras there although he would have conducted had there been one.

He was one of the very few top conductors ready to perform contemporary music. He sometimes grumbled that scores would arrive at his apartment in Moscow by every post written by composers who regarded themselves as ‘Eduard Lalo minimum,’ but quite a few found themselves on his programmes. He was personal friends with many composers, especially Tippett, Tavener and Schnittke but also Maxwell Davies and others. On the subject of programmes he was frequently irked by not being given a free hand. Box office considerations meant nothing to him: he was happy to perform a programme that conformed to his artistic strategy even to a small audience. On the other hand (paradox!) he adored performing popular repertoire for the hundredth time. In an enlightened period, the Royal Ballet invited him to conduct 20 performances of ‘Nutcracker’ in the new production by Peter Wright, designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman. According to muscians in the orchestra he brought out different details every night. I also remember this performance for the delicacy of his interpretation. Ballet conductors tend to perform the music loud in order to mask the dancers’ footfalls but in Rozhdestvensky’s performances the dancers avoided unnecessarily heavy footwork because they sensed the lower orchestral dynamics and this resulted in a much more refined experience than usual.

In opera, he was a real man of the theatre. His many collaborations with Pokrovsky had made him more open to imaginative production than many. There was a famous case with Lyubimov and a production of Pique Dame at the Paris Opera which never took place because the Soviet authorities pulled Lyibimov out when they heard what he intended to do with the piece. Rozhdestvensky resigned in solidarity. Concerning singers, he was always more interested in them as musicians than as voices, almost never commenting on their actual sound quality. An exception was a tenor whose voice he particularly disliked. After a performance of Pique Dame he called the Tomsky in to his dressing room and asked him if Hermann was really dead. ‘Yes’ replied Tomsky. ‘Good!’ he exclaimed.

‘Born into a family of musicians’ as some of the biographies have it, Gennady Rozhdestvensky really did come from an interesting background. His ancestors were if I am not wrong minor aristocrats from Nizhny Novgorod. His mother, Natalia Rozhdestvenskaya was a famous soprano and his father, Nikolai Anosov, a prominent conductor and teacher. Recordings of Rozhdestvenskaya as Fevronia in ‘The invisible city of Kitezh’ and Anosov conducting Sheherezade with none other than David Oistrakh (a family friend) playing the violin solos are still obtainable. Klemperer frequented the family home and the young Rozhdestvensky grew up acquainted with all the great Soviet and visiting musicians. The name Reinhold Gliere might seem to belong to the remote past but Rozhdestvensky remembered him as a kindly neighbour on the same staircase of the family flat in Moscow. Following his British debut conducting the Bolshoi Ballet at Covent Garden in ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ in 1956, Sir Thomas Beecham invited him to conduct the Royal Philharmonic – the beginning of his long association with British orchestras.

To those in the know, ‘icon’ and ‘legend’ were the watchwords but he fell foul of marketing departments where those not in the know could decide to ‘market’ a concert to be conducted by him with a photo say of the chorus master because no new photo of Rozhdestvensky was to hand or with the name of someone else more prominent because Rozhdestvensky was too difficult to spell let alone pronounce. On those occasions he would be deeply offended and wind up in a state where he was unable to proceed with the concert. These situations increased rather at the end of his career when he was disenchanted with the music business in general.

So Rozhdestvensky was a unique musical personality and an extraordinary link with the past. My work was to reconcile this with the modern musical world which I found difficult in the face of the way things have panned out in the last years. A world where a soloist may be engaged according to the number of their followers on Twitter or their fashion sense. Where memory is ever more short term and no one needs to know anything because they can always google whatever they need to. This was not Rozhdestvensky’s world. He approached art as a high priest albeit a humble one. Music could be entertainment but it was also life-enhancement. What it never was for Rozhdestvensky, was an industry."

- Robert Slotover, 17.6.18


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