14 best Russian conductors: the greatest maestros from the last 150 years
The legendary Russian conductors who propelled a nation to musical greatness
Russia (or, for several decades, the USSR) has given us some of the most notable conductors in classical music history.
Many of these conductors - Evgeny Svetlanov, for example, or Serge Koussevitzky - are noted for bringing huge amounts of drama, energy and passion to the classical repertoire. Anyone who has heard Yevgeny Mravinsky's blistering renditions of Tchaikovsky's symphonies 4, 5 and 6 will know what it means to hear a Russian conductor and orchestra in full flow.
Here is our list of the greatest Russian conductors.
The best Russian conductors
Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951)
Technically not the most polished of conductors, the hot-tempered Koussevitzky was nonetheless an inspiring presence and was responsible for transforming the Imperial Court Orchestra – a notoriously mediocre band – into the fine orchestra which was to become legendary as the Leningrad Philharmonic. Increasingly critical of the Bolsheviks, he left Russia in 1920 and became chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1924-49).
Samuil Samosud (1884-1964)
As artistic director of the Malïy Theatre in Leningrad, Samosud conducted premieres of several key operas including Shostakovich’s The Nose (1930), Dzerzhinsky’s Stalin-approved Quiet flows the Don (1935) and Part I of Prokofiev’s War and Peace (1946), earning the Malïy its reputation as a ‘laboratory of Soviet opera’. Having an astute sense of drama, he persuaded Prokofiev to make major revisions to the ‘War’ half of his opera.
Vladimir Dranishnikov (1893-1939)
A fellow-pupil of Prokofiev in Nikolay Tcherepnin’s conducting class, Dranishnikov became music director of the Mariinsky where he conducted the Soviet premiere of Love for Three Oranges as well as of Berg’s Wozzeck and Strauss’s Rosenkavalier. His championship of such ‘bourgeois’ fare earned mistrust from Stalinist watchdogs, and he was sacked in the 1930s. He died conducting in Kiev in 1939.
Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007)
Not content with being possibly the world’s greatest cellist, Rostropovich took private lessons in conducting and made his debut with baton at his contemporary music festival in Gorky, 1962, followed in 1968 by his conducting Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at Moscow’s Bolshoi. Leaving the USSR in1974, his conducting career blossomed, buoyed by his inspiring musicianship.
Fine cycles of the Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky symphonies form the heart of Rostropovich's output as a conductor.
Alexander Gauk (1893-1963)
Though he earned Shostakovich’s wrath for losing several of his manuscripts during World War II, Gauk was responsible for several of his premieres including the ballets The Golden Age and The Bolt, as well as Symphony No. 3. He also reconstructed and performed Rachmaninov’s ‘lost’ Symphony No. 1 from parts archived in the Moscow Conservatory in 1948. His pupils included Mravinsky and Svetlanov.
Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-88)
As chief conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic from 1938, Mravinsky dominated Soviet music for 50 years. His legendary premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (1937), which may well have saved the composer’s life, was his first of several of the composer’s symphonies.
Mravinsky's performances were meticulous and well drilled, and at their best they combined precision with passion. A great example here is the conductor's thrilling renditions of the final three Tchaikovsky symphonies, with his hometown band the Leningrad Philharmonic.
Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002)
Svetlanov’s recordings with Moscow’s USSR State Symphony Orchestra, colourful and detailed if not always the last word in subtlety, have introduced many in the West to lesser-known Russian repertoire. He proudly claimed to have recorded the entire breadth of Russian symphonic music.
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A prolific as well as an exciting conductor, Svetlanov does indeed boast an impressive back catalogue. Not least among his achievements was setting down all 27 of Nikolai Myaskovsky's symphonies in almost universally fine performances. He also gave some fine accounts of the symphonies of that master melodist, Alexander Glazunov.
Kirill Kondrashin (1914-1981)
In 1962 Kirill Kondrashin conducted the premiere of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, 'Babi Yar' after Yevgeny Mravinsky had unexpectedly backed out, evidently because it was too much of a political hot potato. Previously, Kondrashin had given the long-delayed first public performance of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony in 1961, and he subsequently conducted the premieres of The Execution of Stepan Razin (1964) and the Violin Concerto No. 2 (1967).
He became assistant principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1975, and emigrated to the West in 1978. Thereafter, Kondrashin proved himself a pretty versatile conductor of the Austro-German repertoire and much else besides. For example, his urgent, propulsive Dvořák Symphony No. 9 'From the New World' with the Vienna Philharmonic (1980) is one of the best versions of a much-recorded symphony.
Gennady Rozhdestvensky (1931- 2018)
Rozhdestvensky was a brave champion of contemporary Soviet music, ignoring a veto by the head of the Composer’s Union, Tikhon Khrennikov, to conduct the premiere of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 1. He also premiered works of Denisov, Volkonsky and Gubaidulina. Known as a maverick, he was known to often wander off the podium and stand among his musicians while conducting a performance.
Intriguingly, Rozhdestvensky also conducted (with the State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture) a well-regarded cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies - an interesting case of a non-indigenous conductor and orchestra excelling in work that's often thought to be 'quintessentially English'.
Valery Gergiev (b. 1953)
Born in Moscow in 1953, Gergiev grew up in North Ossetia where he began to study piano then conducting. He continued his studies under Ilya Musin (see p28) in the Leningrad Conservatory. In 1978 he made his debut at the Mariinsky (then named the Kirov) aged 25, and was elected chief conductor and artistic director in 1988.
Gergiev's reputation, outside of Russia, is now tarnished by his ongoing support for Russian president Vladimir Putin. This has included endorsing not only the latter's invasion of Ukraine last year, but also his 2014 annexation of the Crimea and even the current homophobic legislation.
His support for the Ukraine campaign quickly led to Gergiev being dropped by festivals, concert halls and management. There's also the strong sense that Gergiev has overstretched himself and his orchestras, leading to a drop in standards.
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Mikhail Pletnev (b.1957)
Pletnev was born into a musical family and studied with Kira Shashkina, Evgeny Timakin, Yakov Flier and Lev Vlassenko. When he was 21, he won the Gold Medal at the VI International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1978, which propelled him onto the international stage.
In 1990 he founded the Russian National Orchestra in the final year of the USSR's existence, the first professional ensemble to be fully independent of the state ministry of culture (though since 2009 it has been obliged to become a state ensemble). Recruited from former players of the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the orchestra's high quality coupled with Pletnev's evident talent as a conductor quickly secured it international acclaim, reinforced by its debut recording of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (released on Virgin Classics).
Conductor and orchestra have since produced an acclaimed cycle of all six numbered Tchaikovsky symphonies (plus Manfred and other orchestral works) for Deutsche Grammophon.
Pletnev has also helmed some first-rate recordings of some of the great Russian ballets, such as Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Prokofiev's Cinderella.
As a pianist, meanwhile, Pletnev has recorded Beethoven piano concertos, Chopin piano sonatas, and much more.
Kirill Petrenko (b. 1972)
The chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Kirill Petrenko was born in Russia but emigrated to Austria with his family when he was aged 18. He made his conducting debut in 1995 in Vorarlberg with a production of Britten's Let's Make an Opera.
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Vladimir Jurowski (b. 1972)
Born in Moscow in 1972, Vladimir Jurowski is the son of the distinguished conductor Mikhail Jurowski. He has worked with some of the greatest orchestras in the world including London Philharmonic Orchestra (including conducting the at the BBC Proms in 2021), Bavarian State Opera, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra.
He has received the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, one of the highest international honours in music.
Vasily Petrenko (b.1976)
Vasily Petrenko has gained an international reputation as a versatile conductor as much at ease in the opera house as in the concert hall. Rigorous training at the hands of the Soviet system allowed him to progress quickly, becoming resident conductor at the St Petersburg State Opera and Ballet Theatre while he was still only 18.
In 2004, Petrenko was appointed chief conductor of the State Academy Orchestra of St Petersburg. He is currently chief conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra, and music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Last year, Petrenko resigned as principal conductor of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation in protest at the Ukraine invasion.
Petrenko's discography includes a superb run-through of Shostakovich's 15 symphonies with his former band, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Definitely one of the best Shostakovich symphony cycles out there.
A friend of BBC Music Magazine, Petrenko has also written for us an insightful series of guides to the Shostakovich symphonies.
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