As head of two of Russia’s leading musical institutions, the Kirov (later, Mariinsky) Opera and Ballet Theatre (1976-88) and the Leningrad (later, St Petersburg) Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was principal conductor for more than three decades from 1988, Yuri Temirkanov, who has died aged 84, was at the forefront of music in the Soviet Union for nearly half a century.
He was a familiar figure internationally, too, 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, principal guest and, from 1992 to 1998, principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic, and, following a series of guest appearances with orchestras in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1990s, he 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 impassioned, often searing performances, he was a controversial figure. Both his idiosyncratic style on the podium and the unpredictability of his dazzling, wilful readings attracted criticism. His unreconstructed views about women – not least female conductors, a phenomenon he believed to be contrary to nature – and his perceived closeness to Vladimir Putin also caused ructions.
As late as 2012 he opined in an interview that a woman “should be beautiful, likable, attractive. Musicians will look at her and be distracted from the music”. Digging himself even deeper, he went on: “The essence of the conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness.”
Yet, Lara Webber, who held both assistant and associate conductor positions with the Baltimore orchestra, stated that these opinions were inconsistent with the man she had known and worked with, and that he was a “really supportive boss”.
Though he denied ever joining the Communist party, he told the Baltimore Sun in 2004 that Putin was “a very good friend, very good”. The newspaper noted that Temirkanov was using his closeness to Putin to lobby for Russian orchestras 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, I noted that his comic antics could have earned him a bob or two on the fringe circuit.
Brandishing his Pavarotti handkerchief and ironically brushing his hair back at the sight of a camera, he quietly relished the limelight. Wearing a quizzical smile, he had an astonishing repertory of gestures at his disposal, a flick of the wrist acting as a kind of semiotic code. He conducted not with a baton, scarcely even with his arms: more with his eyebrows and occasionally his elbows.
The histrionics suited him best in a Prokofiev programme. In the Classical Symphony and Romeo and Juliet music he extracted a rather heavy humour – with acidic brass and the lower strings excavating deeply – but this was balanced by a contrasting mode of the utmost delicacy, in which the higher strings dialogued in an exaggeratedly hushed whisper.
In Russian repertoire, in particular, his readings were at their most electrifying. And, whatever one’s views of his music-making, he was always a joy to watch on the podium in these years.
At a BBC Proms appearance in 2004, his gestures in Glinka’s Valse-Fantaisie were extraordinary: palm extended like an importunate beggar, sweeping, scooping, sometimes a mere nod of the head. But the result was breathtaking: a waltz that truly floated, with gradations of delicacy that rarely rose above mezzo forte.
Such was the synergy between this orchestra (now named the St Petersburg Philharmonic) and its longstanding music director that Temirkanov could risk bold but often convincing rubato and idiosyncratic phrase turns. In more recent years, streamed performances showed a genial, silver-haired maestro still gesturing extravagantly, albeit more sedately.
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 the violin at the Leningrad Conservatory school for talented children and then conducting 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 All-Union Conductors’ Competition in 1968 he became music director of the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra, the second major ensemble of the city.
As artistic director and chief conductor of Kirov Opera and Ballet he exercised considerable authority. For his own production of Eugene Onegin in 1982 (filmed in 1984) he undertook intensive archival research to establish such niceties as how a lady would hold a fan, how a man would sit when wearing tails. According to Sergei Leiferkus, who sang the title role, Temirkanov knew the entire Pushkin novel and the complete opera libretto from memory. His aim was to achieve maximum fidelity to the original, and, unsurprisingly, he was unsympathetic to the more progressive dramaturgy then prevalent 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 were already looking old-fashioned (though both his Onegin and the Queen of Spades remain in the Mariinsky repertory to the present day). His conducting of Onegin, in particular, was once again criticised as erratic.
He recorded the six numbered symphonies of Tchaikovsky twice, once with the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, once with the Royal Philharmonic. In both, the dark mysteries of the later works are unerringly captured. Russian music loomed large in his recorded catalogue, but he also set down versions of works by such composers as Mozart, Mahler, Berlioz, Dvořák and Sibelius.
Temirkanov’s wife, Irina Guseva, died in 1997. Their son, Vladimir, a violinist, also predeceased him.
• Yuri Temirkanov, conductor, born 10 December 1938; died 2 November 2023