The Arty Semite

A Conflicted Conductor Under Stalinism

By Benjamin Ivry

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Some Soviet Jews, whether or not they were true believers in Communism, were forced to express gratitude to Stalin simply for not being Hitler. That is one conclusion to be drawn from “Kirill Kondrashin: His Life in Music” a recent biography of the great Russian Jewish conductor by journalist Gregor Tassie (The Scarecrow Press).

According to Tassie, Kondrashin’s repeated claims that he was “proud to call himself a Stalinist” were motivated by the fact that his family was allowed to survive in an era when Europe’s Jews were largely exterminated. Yet the question remains of how genuine such declarations of allegiance could be under a murderous dictatorship. One Ukrainian-born colleague of Kondrashin’s, Dmitry Paperno, defines him as “another victim of a regime that he deeply despised yet had no choice but to serve, and thus to promote.”

Kondrashin was born in Moscow to violinist parents who worked with both the post-Revolutionary conductor-less orchestra Persimfans, and the Moscow State Jewish Theater of Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, who would eventually be murdered by Stalin.

After studying at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1930s, Kondrashin quickly began a brilliant career as an opera conductor, becoming a staff conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in 1943. But he abruptly resigned from that position in 1956, opting to focus instead on concert hall repertoire. The move surprised many of his contemporaries. As a fellow Jewish maestro, Samuil Samosud, commented: “Don’t you know that people only leave [the Bolshoi] when they die or are arrested?” In 1958 Kondrashin first won world-wide fame, however, when he conducted the first prize-winning 23-year-old American pianist Van Cliburn at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Despite his once seemingly ardent Stalinism, Kondrashin defected to the Netherlands while on tour in 1978. Though he was only to live outside the Soviet Union for three years prior to his death in 1981, his discography displays a bifurcated existence, featuring symphonies by underrated Jewish composers such as Mieczysław Weinberg, alongside such dreary Soviet apparatchiks such as Tikhon Khrennikov.

Unfortunately, “Kirill Kondrashin: His Life in Music” omits mention of some of the conductor’s most outstanding recordings with Russian Jewish soloists, including the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto with Maria Grinberg; Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 503 with Grigory Ginzburg; and Tanayev’s Suite de Concert for Violin and Orchestra with Igor Bezrodny.

While not all of Kondrashin’s recordings were so memorable, a conflicted legacy seems inevitable at a time when music was often drawn from performers like confessions under torture.

Watch Kondrashin conduct a rip-roaring performance of the Brahms Double Concerto:


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