Death of a legendary Russian conductor

Death of a legendary Russian conductor


norman lebrecht

June 16, 2018

The death was announced today in Moscow of the unforgettable Gennady Rozhdestvensky. He was 87.

Making his Bolshoi debut in 1951, he conducted all over the world, serving as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

Back home, he conducted Schnittke symphonies in the provinces when his music was banned in major cities and did much to advance two generations of non-conformist composers.

But he never spoke out against the Soviet regime, accepted its highest honours and lived comfortably within the system.

Orchestras loved him for not using all of his rehearsal time, saving the best for his concerts.

He was married to the pianist Viktoria Postnikova.

UPDATE: Rare video: Rozhdestvensky with Shostakovich.


  • Jacky says:

    The last of his kind-the great dinasty of Soviet conductors-Rachlin,Golovanov,Anosov-his father-,Ivanov, Mravinsky,Arvid Jassons,Svetlanov,Kondrashin.
    He might have been uneven and somehow lacking a real personal Sound.His Shostakovich and Schnittke are definitive.His Sibelius is also splendid.He had a “larger then life” way of music making.
    A chapter in the history of conducting is now closed

  • Thomas Green says:

    Respectfully, you do not know how he lived his life in relation to the government. Some of us do and you do him a great disservice by insinuation.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      If you know more, make it public. My information came from the late Sasha Ivashkin and others who knew him well.

      • M2N2K says:

        Read the comment by “MARK” below here. It corresponds very closely with information given to me by some of my older colleagues who were personally involved in this episode. It is an important story that deserves to be told.

        • steven holloway says:

          Indeed. What Mark writes is perfectly in accord with what I was told shortly after by three people close to the affair.

      • Clipman says:

        For example, Gennady Nikolaevich always spoke with a strong dislike about Tikhon Khrennikov. Indeed, in the middle of the “storm”, just after he went out of the Bolshoi at the beginning of 2000s years, he even commented how in the Earth was possible to organize a concert to “honour” Khrennikov’s birthday.

        In fact, the story around the premiere of the Schnittke’s 1st symphony is known only thanks to Rozhdestvensky. He and the composer went to Khrennikov (who was Secretary of the Composers Union of all the USSR) to ask permission. Khrennikov, in a devilish way, just answered: “Oh, but how can I allow a thing which I didn’t forbid?”. The premiere in Gorky (now Nizhny-Novgorod in 1974 was possible thanks to a authorization by Rodion Shchedrin, Secretary of the Composers Union of Russian SFSR) Later, even Schedrin will speak in very kind terms about Khrennikov (!), as the “rehabilitation” of the latter increased in Putin’s Russia.

        There are many facts that need to clear out. Another example: The Nose sheet music. According to Rozhdestvensky, the score was lost until he found it while doing cleaning works (imposed by the Government) at the Bolshoi’s air raid shelter. There was a piano with a very old sheet music and it turned to be the piano reduction of the opera. Rozhdestvensky took it and to legalise the finding, he proposed an exchange: he gives to the library the score of Rubinstein’s The Demon and he takes the Nose. The Bolshoi accepted it, “since we don’t need such works as The Nose” (sic). “And I don’t know what is more valuable…the opera itself or THAT answer”, recalled later Rohdestvensky with a smile on his face.

        I bought the new edition of DSCH’s Nose, but the preface says nothing about that. Only a short mention related to “a revival in the seventies of the opera”. Not any mention on the efforts of Rozhdestvensky to take back this amazing work. The previous edition does not contain any comment either.

  • Christopher Hill says:

    My lasting memory of this “Maestro” is how he literally stuck his nose in a book of competitor biographies at the Cadaques conducting competiton, willfully and intentionally ignoring most participants, most of whom traveled at some cost and distance to attend. It was if to say, “what you do here does not matter, only what connections you bring to me”. Or, maybe that the result had been fixed in advance? I only wish I had been informed, so that I could have spent more of my time at the Mediterranean. Thanks for the memories!

    • db says:

      Similar experience here. I was a quarter-finalist there and upon my inquiry of the maestro what he had thought of my performance, he barely looked at me and said drily “everything was very fine, I wish you good luck”. Later, I saw him discussing extensively with the future winner of the competition about the latter’s rehearsal for the competition finals.

      Still, a fascinating conductor whom I have always admired. May he rest in peace.

  • Rob says:

    Amazing Conductor. Has left us wonderful recordings. What a life!

  • Ucanseetheend says:

    Loved his Rach 2 with LSO. The first CD I ever bought back in 1986

  • Cubs Fan says:

    In the Prokofiev and Elgar he sure seems to be enjoying himself – smiling throughout. No scowling and sweating like so many others – just a fine musician loving the art of making music. Not ashamed to use a score, either. His Glazunov symphony set is still the best ever – the joy just radiates through the speakers. One of the greats. A terrible shame that the recording industry imploded in his last years – there was so much we could have learned from him. I was always hoping for an Ilya Murometz. RIP.

  • Samson Cheung says:

    RIP. You were legendary.

  • MacroV says:

    I had the chance to see him conduct several concerts in Moscow about a dozen years ago. No-nonsense, straightforward, and doing much more interesting rep than he usually did as a guest conductor in the west.

    Politically, I don’t know what his deal was. He survived the communists, and seemed to do ok under Putin without any obvious fealty paid.

    And to my knowledge, he even beats out Karajan, Marriner and Neeme Jarvi as the most-recorded conductor, at least if you include the many radio recordings that eventually made their way to CD.
    87 is a pretty good run.

  • Caravaggio says:


  • Petros Linardos says:

    During Rozhdestvensky’s tenure at the Vienna Symphony, one of the orchestra’s musicians was one of my teachers. He raved about Rozhdestvensky, especially about his efficient rehearsals, which sometimes finished before using up the allocated time. With regard to that, he called him a kind of successor to Knappertsbusch.

  • Mark says:

    He never joined the Communist Party. In 1974, he was ordered by the notoriously anti-Semitic Sergei Lapin, Chair of the Soviet State Commitee for Radio and TV, to dismiss all Jewish musicians from his orchestra (The All-Union Radio & TV Orchestra). Rozhdestvensky refused, resigned from his position and worked mostly in the West until the late 1980s.
    But Vladimir Fefoseyev, appointed to the music director position after Rozhdestvensky’s resignation, was only too willing to do the dirty deed …

  • Donald Hansen says:

    He reminds me of Sir Adrian Boult. His baton is shorter and he holds it differently than Sir Adrian, but he is definitely not one of the sweaty types. Wonderful conductor (both of them) who fortunately has left us with many fine recordings.

  • Andrew Powell says:

    He was someone we kept forgetting about. A genius anyway. His conducting was “in the moment,” if that phrase ever meant anything. In concert you hung on everything he did; you had to. The music often seemed quirky, but if you listened afterwards it was quite conventional.

    I would call him “eminent” rather than “legendary”; and Guttenberg a “charlatan” rather than “eminent.”

  • JoBe says:


  • Graeme Withers says:

    Heard him conduct a monumental performance of Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera in 1991. It wasn’t recorded to my knowledge – where was YouTube in those days. There’s also a marvellous CD of him playing Tschaikowsky’s 50 Russian Folk Songs in duet with Viktoria Postnikova – absolutely the best. RIP

  • Lane Anderson says:

    Some twenty-odd years ago Maestro Rozhdestvensky conducted the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic in one of its gala summer concerts held in the courtyard of the Prince’s Palace. During a break in the orchestra’s dress rehearsal he, Concertmaster Sydney Weiss and I (principal cellist) moved out onto the “Place du Palais” to observe the evening’s pyrotechnic display, part of Monaco’s annual fireworks competition. The three of us watched in disbelief while the evening’s contestant served up a totally disastrous show: for whatever reason, one rocket after the other fizzled before falling pitifully back to earth. When at last the performance came to an end the first one to break our stunned silence was the Maestro, true to form: “They rehearse too much!”

  • Been Here Before says:

    Rest in Peace! I have heard Gennady Rozhdestvensky many years ago conducting the works of Sibelius, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. An excellent conductor – very relaxed and great rapport with the orchestra. What a pity I never got a chance to hear him again.

  • Herr Doktor says:

    A real loss. We were very fortunate in Boston to hear him fairly regularly over the years as a guest conductor, and invariably, his concerts were among the highlights of the season. His programming was always interesting and often well beyond the routine warhorses.

    I will never forget the stunning performance of Suk’s “A Summer’s Tail” that Rozhdestvensky gave us, which happened to be the American premiere of the work only 100 years after it was written! I was already familiar with the work from recording so I wasn’t hearing it for the first time, but the performance was STUNNING. And that ending….wow. I didn’t think anyone could top the performance of the ending from Libor Pesek’s recording, but Rozhdestvensky did. I also enjoyed hearing his wife as a pianist, and thought she was greatly underrated.

    It’s sad that his end in Boston came for stupid reasons. He was insulted that the soloist received greater billing in his concert in marketing materials than he did, and he stormed out of Boston, never to return. That was a huge loss for Boston music-lovers.

    Thank you, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, for YEARS of great concerts in Boston. We were all so fortunate to hear your music-making. Condolences to his wife, family, and friends.

    • Harold Lewis says:

      When in London, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky could sometimes be encountered looking through the latest batch of CDs at a favourite record store (Harold Moores in Marlborough St). I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to him there and, in particular, thank him for his pioneering and revelatory recordings of Prokofiev’s shorter ballets (Le Pas d’Acier and On the Dneiper), as well as the original version of The Gambler, which introduced me to those wonderful scores.

    • MacroV says:

      Curious when you heard A Summer Tale in Boston. I saw Michael Geilen conduct it in Seattle c. 1994. Also highly memorable.

    • Rachael Young says:

      Yes absolutely! And I think his wife, Viktoria Postnikova, underrated also -to say the least, which is why I invite her as a soloist where ever possible.

      Here she is in Schnittke’s Concerto for piano and strings at the Berlin Philharmonie in 2016.

  • barry guerrero says:

    A friend told me that Rozhdestvensky “knocked everyone’s socks off” in Chicago with an incredibly intense performance of the Shostakovich 4th. I never got to see him, but I did see Yevgeney Svetlanov give an outstanding rendition of the Shostakovich 5th with his big orchestra from Moscow (the one that changes names every five minutes).

    • MacroV says:

      I remember reading the late, great Ray Still – not one usually to hold a high opinion of conductors – recalling Rozdestvensky as one of his favorite guest conductors.

  • phf655 says:

    The last I heard of him was when he canceled an engagement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, claiming that the lettering of his name on the poster outside the hall was too small! If I have the wrong conductor, please correct and forgive me.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      You are correct. That said, he had a point. Lynn Harrell was the soloist, and he got the largest font on the poster and far more prominent mention in the marketing materials. In the BSO’s defense, Lynn Harrell is a more marketable name than Gennady Rozhdestvensky. But in Rozhdestvensky’s defense, I can understand why he felt insulted–and personally I think he should have had a thicker skin. The BSO could have and should have handled this differently. Rozhdestvensky simply walked out during the rehearsal period and left Boston before the concerts took place. Everyone lost. And we never got to hear Rozhdestvensky again here in Boston. If I were to put the blame in its proper proportions, I’d say it’s 60/40, BSO/Rozhdestvensky.

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        I’d reverse that. You hit the nail on the head when you said, “personally I think he should have had a thicker skin”.

  • Basia Jaworski says:

    His recording of Das Klagende Lied is the best ever!
    RIP Maestro!

    • barry guerrero says:

      Wow! – with that lineup of vocalists, I could sure imagine why. I’ll have to check that out. Thanks.

  • Jeremy Walker says:

    The world has lost one of its greatest talents. I was fortunate enough to have been accepted into his conducting class in September 2017. The last time I saw Maestro Rozhdestvensky was in a conducting lesson on December 6th, 2017, when, despite being physically weak, he was on fine, sparkling form.
    The night before he died, his final-year student, Azim Karimov, conducted Prokofiev’s Second Symphony in his final exam, in a performance that would have made the Maestro proud.

  • Murray Citron says:

    I have his fine recording of four-hand music of Brahms made with Viktoria Postnikova (Melodia – Eurodisc LP 89 152 KK) – definitely worth seeking out.

  • Stephen says:

    His name means “Christmas” in Russian.

  • Gerard ten Hoope says:

    He was one of a kind, fearless in everything he did!

  • Algot says:

    Except for Carlos Kleiber, I have never seen a conductor with better technique. But he really didn’t like to rehearse; in Stockholm he once said, after an hour into the first rehearsal: ” I know my things, you learn your things, see you at the concert ! ”
    1979 in Moscow, on tour with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, I suddenly heard a strange swishing sound during the concert. Then I saw GR with a big smile. He had gotten hold of his old 60 cm fibreglass stick, very flexible, like a fishing rod … and it swished ! There are many good videos with GR and Oistrakh on YouTube.

    • barry guerrero says:

      Yes, for all 10 pieces that he conducted. Peerless.

      • MacroV says:

        If you mean to say he had a limited repertoire, you are dead wrong. He conducted everything, and a lot of non-standard works. Though it might not have been as obvious when guest conducting in the West, when he was probably asked, as a Russian, to do a lot of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

        • AZ Contrabassoon says:

          I think Barry G is referring to Carlos Kleiber who only liked to conduct when he “needed to fill the refrigerator” and even then had a very limited repertoire. No one could think Rozhdestvensky has a limited repertoire.

    • David Taylor says:

      You’re right . . . he didn’t like to rehearse. Once, on a beastly hot day at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago he told the CSO, ” You know this symphony (Prokofieff Symphony #5) and I know it. See you tonight!!!” The concert, played without rehearsal sounded just fine!

  • Anonymous says:

    If anyone would like a wonderful DVD of a lot of this wonderful conductor’s work and teaching, you can buy
    “The Red Baton” on line. The expressive face and baton of R. whenever any musician worked with him were unforgettable and one of the reasons orchestra players loved playing with him. He did not use a podium, and when he rehearsed, he would walk over to the section he wanted to tell something, and conduct them very close, with a gleeful smile, as if to say, “ now I am going to tell you something that I don’t want the rest to hear.”

  • Edward Smith says:

    He conducted the CBSO a number of times in the 80s and 90s.

    At the interval of one concert I asked him what he was doing after the afterwards ( meaning, would he like to go for supper). “thinking about the mistakes I made and hoping not make them again next time”!

    A great musician!

    Edward Smith

  • Rob says:

    He conducted at the BBC Proms some 43 times.

  • YB Schragadove says:

    RIP. A superb standout in Rozhdestvensky’s discography is his 1988 recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphony #2 with the LSO (on IMP/Regis/Alto). There are certain moments in this performances that I’ve never heard bettered. The supreme mastery of his conducting is manifest everywhere, with a beautifully lush and dark sound with absolutely gorgeous phrasing and magnificent climaxes.

  • Martin Anderson says:

    When he was at the BBC SO, I had him sent van Dieren’s Chinese Symphony. In the event, he declined to do it, saying that there was too much slow music in it — but at least he had read the score before turning it down. Fifteen years later, in the mid-1990s, when I was living in Paris, we used to turn up at the same Chinese restaurant, just off the Étoile. If he had read my reviews of his Enescu recordings for Chandos, he was diplomacy itself: I felt that the legendary OK-let’s-go-home of his rehearsal regime extended to the recordings themselves, and of course I said so. If Noddy made the connection between his fellow diner and his critic(and why should he?), he didn’t seem at all concerned.

  • David Taylor says:

    This is a real loss. I first encountered Gennady when I was a member of the Cleveland Orchestra in the mid-1970s where he conducted one or two Shostakovich Symphony’s and Dvorak’s Symphony in G major. Everyone loved him. He had one of the best pair of hands I have ever seen, and always conducted without a podium, level with the orchestra, but his hands were often high in the air so visibility was no problem. When the Chicago Symphony played with him perhaps a year ago it was wonderful to see him again and his lovely wife who we took to a Russian Orthodox Church that she wanted to see in the area. We had a wonderful time with her. He was a very friendly man and will be very missed.

    • Stephen Owades says:

      I sang under his direction several times with the Boston Symphony (Berlioz Te Deum, Shostakovich “Babi Yar,” and Stravinsky “Perséphone”). I too remember his habit of not using a podium: indeed, he would often walk out among the players while conducting, both in rehearsal and in concert. A fine musician and conductor!


    like my hero Arvid Jansons he was focused on live concerts and of the many I heard in London I will never forget ELGAR’S Apostles at the RFH (the original Prom was cancelled owing to a strike) and of course he championed VW in Russia
    his dvd with the Tchaikovsky R & J is remarkable: he commentates on an old film of himself and points out the false tradition of playing the ending too slowly

  • J. Froberger says:

    Strongly recommended: Notes Interdites: two films by Bruno Monsaingeon. (The red baton and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky: concuctor or conjuror.)

    Plus extra: a very intriguing performance of Dead Souls, orchestra suite based on Alfred Schnitke’s film music. A live performance of this work in november 1995 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic I will never forget. A very great conductor has died.

  • Jean says:

    Legendaric conductor ! Rest in peace

  • karajanis says:

    What a repertoire and curiosity! Which French conductor conducts Roussel’s 1st and second symphony, you will just hear Mahler and Mahler again, how lazy all these conductors are! A universal conductor, Busoni, Enesco, Nielsen, and what a brucknerian!……….
    I will always cherish Shotakovich 4th I heard with Orchestre de Paris, the concert was like a masterclass of conducting, and so deep and so right! Good luck Nezet Seguin, Dudamel and Nelson , you have all the energy of youth, but where is the spirit behind the notes, what background do you have?……..
    All my respect to this giant.