As head of two of Russia’s leading musical institutions, the Kirov (later Mariinsky) Opera and Ballet Theater (1976-88) and the Leningrad (later St Petersburg) Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was principal conductor for over thirty years ago. 1988, Yuri Temirkanov, who died aged 84, was at the forefront of music in the Soviet Union for almost half a century.
He was also internationally known, not only for his regular tours with Russian orchestras but also for his relationships with American, British and other European ensembles.
He was, from 1979, principal guest and, from 1992 to 1998, principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic, and, after a series of guest appearances with orchestras in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1990s, he was a music director. of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2000 to 2006. He has also held positions with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Dresden Philharmonic.
However, despite his powerful and passionate, often sarcastic performances, he was a controversial figure. Both his different style on the podium and the unpredictability of his sultry, deliberate readings attracted criticism. His unflattering views about women – especially female conductors, a phenomenon he believed to be contrary to nature – and his proximity to Vladimir Putin, he said, were also grounds for breach.
As far back as 2012 he said in an interview that a woman “should be beautiful, desirable, attractive. The musicians will look at her and not pay attention to the music”. Digging even deeper, he continued: “Strength is the core of the director’s profession. The essence of a woman is weakness.”
However, Lara Webber, who held assistant and associate conductor positions with the Baltimore orchestra, said these views were at odds with the man she knew and worked with, who was a “really supportive boss “.
Although he denied ever joining the Communist party, he told the Baltimore Sun in 2004 that Putin was “a very good, very good friend”. The newspaper noted that Temirkanov was using his proximity to Putin to lobby for Russian orchestras facing financial crisis in the post-Soviet years.
Temirkanov’s podium choreography has changed over the years. When he took the Leningrad Philharmonic to the Edinburgh festival in 1991, I noticed that his jokes might have earned him a bob or two on the fringe circuit.
Making a badge of his sister Pavarotti and ironically brushing his hair back at the camera, he enjoyed the limelight. Wearing a quizzical smile, he had a great repertoire of gestures at his disposal, a flick of the wrist acting as a kind of half-metrical code. He didn’t steer with a stick, barely even with his hands: more with his eyebrows and sometimes his elbows.
The histrionics suited him better in Prokofiev’s program. In the Classical Symphony and in the Romeo and Juliet music he had a rather heavy humor – with acid brass and the lower strings digging deep – but this was balanced by a contrasting mode of the greatest sweetness, in which the higher strings engaged in a whisper exaggerated. .
In the Russian repertoire, in particular, his readings were at their electrifying best. And, regardless of one’s perception of his music, he was always a joy to watch on the podium in these years.
Appearing at the BBC Proms in 2004, his gestures in Glinka’s Valse-Fantaisie were unusual: an outstretched palm like an imported beggar, sweeping, scooping, sometimes just a nod of the head. But the result was amazing: a truly floating waltz, with gradients of sensitivity that rarely rose above mezzo forte.
The synergy between this orchestra (now known as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) and its long-standing music director was such that Temirkanov could risk bold but often determined rubato and singular turns of phrase. In recent years, streaming performances have shown the genial, silver-haired maestro is still engaging in rare, albeit more subdued, performances.
Born in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Caucasus, he was one of four children of Khatu Sagidovich Temirkanov, minister of culture in Kabardino-Balkaria, executed by the Germans in 1941, and his wife, Polina Petyrovna.
Yuri studied violin at the Leningrad Conservatory school for gifted children and then conducted at the Conservatory, graduating in 1965. He began conducting at the Malïy Opera theatre, Leningrad, making his debut with La Traviata. After winning the Soviet Union Conductors’ Competition in 1968, he became music director of the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra, the city’s second largest ensemble.
As artistic director and chief conductor of the Kirov Opera and Ballet he wielded considerable authority. For his own production of Eugene Onegin in 1982 (filmed in 1984) he did intensive archival research to find out what a woman would like, how a man would sit while wearing tails. According to Sergei Leiferkus, who sang the title, Temirkanov knew the entire Pushkin novel and the entire opera libretto from memory. His aim was to achieve the greatest fidelity to the original, and, unsurprisingly, he was not sympathetic to the more progressive dramatization prevailing in Europe at the time.
When he brought the Kirov to Covent Garden in 1987 – the first time a Russian opera company had appeared at the Royal Opera – with his own productions of Onegin and the Queen of Spades, as well as Boris Godunov, directed by Boris Pokrovsky , the stage. They already looked old-fashioned (although his Onegin and Queen of the Rá remain in the Mariinsky repertoire to this day). His directing of Onegin, in particular, was again criticized as odd.
He recorded Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies twice, once with the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, once with the Royal Philharmonic. In both, the dark mysteries of later works are relentlessly captured. Russian music was very large in his recording catalogue, but he also set down versions of works by composers such as Mozart, Mahler, Berlioz, Dvořák and Sibelius.
Temirkanov’s wife, Irina Guseva, died in 1997. She was also predeceased by her son, Vladimir, a violinist.
• Yuri Temirkanov, conductor, born 10 December 1938; died 2 November 2023