Obituary of Yuri Temirkanov

As director 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 more than three decades since 1988, Yuri Temirkanov, who has died aged 84, was at the forefront of music in the Soviet Union for almost half a century.

He was also a familiar figure internationally, not only by virtue of his frequent tours with Russian orchestras but also because of his relationships with American, British and other European ensembles.

He was, from 1979, chief 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, was music director. of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2000 to 2006. He also held positions with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Dresden Philharmonic.

However, despite his powerfully passionate and often scathing performances, he was a controversial figure. Both his idiosyncratic style on the podium and the unpredictability of his dazzling, opinionated readings attracted criticism. His unreconstructed views on women – particularly female conductors, a phenomenon he considered contrary to nature – and his perceived closeness to Vladimir Putin also caused an uproar.

Still in 2012, he said in an interview that a woman “must be beautiful, friendly and attractive. “Musicians will look at it and be distracted from the music.” Elaborating further, she continued: “The essence of the conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness.”

However, Lara Webber, who held assistant and associate conductor positions at the Baltimore orchestra, said these views were not consistent with those of the man she had known and worked with, and that he was a “truly 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 taking advantage of his closeness to Putin to lobby on behalf of Russian orchestras that were facing a financial crisis in the post-Soviet years.

Temirkanov’s podium choreography changed over the years. When he took the Leningrad Philharmonic to the Edinburgh festival in 1991, he noted that his comic antics might have earned him a bob or two on the fringe circuit.

Brandishing her Pavarotti scarf and ironically brushing her hair back at the sight of a camera, she quietly basked in the spotlight. With a mocking smile, she had at her disposal an astonishing repertoire of gestures: a flick of the wrist acted as a kind of semiotic code. She did not direct with a cane, just with her arms: more with her eyebrows and occasionally with her elbows.

Histrionics suited him better in a Prokofiev program. In the Classical Symphony and in the music of Romeo and Juliet he extracted a rather heavy mood (with acidic brass and the lower strings sinking deeply), but this was balanced by a contrasting mode of maximum delicacy, in which the upper strings conversed in an exaggeratedly quiet whisper. .

In the Russian repertoire, in particular, his readings were more electrifying. And, whatever one’s opinion of his way of making music, it was always a pleasure to see him on the podium over the years.

Appearing at the BBC Proms in 2004, his gestures in Glinka’s Valse-Fantaisie were extraordinary: palm outstretched like an importunate beggar, sweeping, scooping, sometimes a simple nod of the head. But the result was impressive: a waltz that truly floated, with gradations of delicacy that rarely surpassed the mezzo forte.

Such was the synergy between this orchestra (now called the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) and its former music director that Temirkanov could risk bold but often convincing rubato and idiosyncratic turns of phrase. In more recent years, broadcast performances showed a genial, silver-haired teacher still gesticulating extravagantly, albeit more calmly.

Born in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Caucasus, he was one of four children of Khatu Sagidovich Temirkanov, minister of culture in Kabardino-Balkaria, who was executed by the Germans in 1941, and his wife, Polina Petyrovna.

Yuri studied violin at the Leningrad Conservatory school for talented children and then conducted at the conservatory, graduating in 1965. He began conducting at the Malïy Opera House in Leningrad, debuting with La Traviata. After winning the All-Soviet Conducting 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 exercised considerable authority. For his own production of Eugene Onegin in 1982 (filmed in 1984), he undertook intense archival research to establish such subtleties as how a lady held a fan, how a man in tails sat. According to Sergei Leiferkus, who sang the title role, Temirkanov knew by heart the entire Pushkin novel and the entire libretto of the opera. His aim was to achieve maximum fidelity to the original and, as might be expected, he was not sympathetic to the more progressive dramaturgy then prevailing in Europe.

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 stagings already seemed dated (although both his Onegin and his Queen of Spades remain in Mariinsky’s repertoire to this day). His direction of Onegin, in particular, was again criticized for being erratic.

He recorded Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies twice, once with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and once with the Royal Philharmonic. In both, the dark mysteries of the later works are unerringly captured. Russian music featured prominently in his recorded catalogue, but he also recorded versions of works by composers such as Mozart, Mahler, Berlioz, Dvořák and Sibelius.

Temirkanov’s wife, Irina Guseva, died in 1997. His son, Vladimir, a violinist, also predeceased him.

• Yuri Temirkanov, conductor, born December 10, 1938; died on November 2, 2023

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