The noted Russian conductor, Kirill [Kiril, Kyrill, Kyril] Petrovich Kondrashin, was born into a musical family: both his parents were string players, with Serge Koussevitzky’s orchestra and then that of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Having spent many hours at rehearsals, he made a firm decision at the age of 14 to become a conductor. He took piano lessons from the age of 6, studied music theory at the Musical Teknikum in Moscow with Nikolay Zhilyayev, who had a strong influence on him, and went on to study conducting from 1932 to 1936 at the Moscow Conservatory, where he was a pupil of Boris Khaikin (who was only 3 years older than Kondrashin himself).
Having already made his conducting debut at the Moscow Children’s Theatre (Young People's Theatre) in 1931, Kirill Kondrashin worked as assistant conductor at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre from 1934, making his debut there with the French operetta Les Cloches de Corneville by Planquette. When Khaikin was appointed chief conductor at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad, Kondrashin followed him and conducted there from 1937 to 1941 (or 1936 to 1943, or from 1938 to 1942); his repertoire was extensive and included Puccini’s La fanciulla del West as well as contemporary works such as Pashchenko’s Pompadour. He was awarded a diploma in 1938 at the First All-Union Conductors’ Competition for his skill and technique, a contemporary critic commenting positively on his ability to work productively with orchestras: ‘Eschewing wordiness, Kondrashin achieves understanding by precise gesture rather than oratory.’ Along with other artists who were deemed important to the war effort, he was evacuated from besieged Leningrad after the German invasion of Russia. Kondrashin moved to the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow (, which was also in a wartime home outside the capital) as a member of the conducting staff in 1943 and remained there until 1956, a period during which he benefited from the experience of working with the leading conductors of the Bolshoi such as Samosud and Golovanov. Meanwhile, a demand was building for him as a concert conductor. In addition he staged several new productions and conducted many of the USSR’s leading orchestras in Russian music of the 19th and 20th centuries. His performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 attracted the composer's attention and led to the formation of a firm friendship. He was awarded the Stalin Prizes in 1948 and 1949.
After leaving the Bolshoi, Kirill Kondrashin concentrated on orchestral conducting, becoming highly thought of as a concerto accompanist and working with the country’s leading instrumentalists, such as Emil Gilels, Kogan, David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Richter and Rostropovich. In the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, Kondrashin was the conductor for Van Cliburn, who won the first prize. After the competition he toured the USA with Cliburn, being the first Russian conductor to visit America since the Cold War began. They performed and recorded the Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which they had played in the competition. The recordings easily sold millions of copies in America, and their Tchaikovsky recording for RCA Victor was the first classical LP to go platinum. Later, in 1972, a live performance of Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 reunited Cliburn and Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in Moscow; RCA Victor eventually released the performance, along with a studio recording of S. Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, on CD. The performances and recordings with Van Cliburn helped to establish an international reputation for Kondrashin. He held numerous subsequent engagements in the America, the last being a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in February 1981.
Kirill Kondrashin was appointed Chief Conductor (Artistic Director) of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in 1960, holding the position until 1975 in a period of notable achievement. His operatic experience had given Kondrashin all the qualities needed for exceptional performance as well as the ability to draw highly coloured and dramatic readings from orchestras. From 1960 he conducted without a baton, relying entirely on gesture, finger movements and eye contact to establish his musical requirements. He greatly improved the performing standards of the orchestra, extending its repertoire to include symphonies by Gustav Mahler as well as many new works by leading contemporary Soviet composers such as Khachaturian, Rodion Shchedrin, D. Shostakovich and Sviridov, and led it on tour internationally. He was the USSR's finest interpreter of G. Mahler, leading all the symphonies with unusual restraint and with the expressive and dramatic qualities of the music seemingly enhanced by understatement. During his tenure with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, he premiered D. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 in December 1961 and Symphony No. 13 the following year. He gave several performances in Europe and America with other famous Russian musicians like Rostropovich, David Oistrakh, and Sviatoslav Richter. He participated in another piano concerto blockbuster recording with a USA piano star, the great Prokofiev Third Concerto recording for Mercury with Byron Janis, still considered by many the greatest interpretation of that brilliant work on disc. In recognition of his achievements, in 1969 (or 1972) Kondrashin was awarded the USSR’s highest artistic honour, the title of People’s Artist of the Soviet Union.
Kirill Kondrashin also taught at the Moscow Conservatory (1950-1953; 1972-1975). After relinquishing his position with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra he increased his guest engagements outside Russia. He left the Soviet Union in December 1978, while touring in the Netherlands. He sought and was granted political asylum, on the grounds that the Soviet regime was stifling his artistic freedom, whereupon the Soviet regime immediately banned all his previous recordings. Soon afterwards (1979) he was appointed Permanent Guest Conductor of Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam and remained in that position until his death. He also established a brief but fruitful collaboration with the Wiener Philharmoniker. In the Netherlands he married his assistant and interpreter, musicologist Nolda Broekstra (b 1944). Their family life in the Netherlands was short, as Kondrashin died unexpectedly in Amsterdam from a heart attack in early 1981, on the same day he conducted G. Mahler's First Symphony with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Kirill Kondrashin’s discography is large and divides into three different segments: the first consists of numerous recordings, most of them concerto accompaniments, made prior to his appointment as a chief conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra; the second consists of recordings made with this orchestra, bfor the Soviet recording organisation Melodiya, and for foreign companies; and the third consists of recordings made as his international career developed towards the end of his life. In the first category his recordings with the Russian soloists Emil Gilels (Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3), David Oistrakh (J. Brahms’ Violin Concerto) and Sviatoslav Richter (Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1; Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5) are especially notable, as are those with Van Cliburn (Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3). He also made a memorable recording of Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Ludmilla with the forces of the Bolshoi Theatre. At the end of this phase Kondrashin made a highly-praised recording of the two Franz Liszt’s Piano Concertos with Sviatoslav Richter in London. The crowning achievements of his second phase of recording are recordings of symphonies by Gustav Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich. The G. Mahler series in particular is of interest as it demonstrates a slightly different approach to the interpretation of the music of this composer compared to that adopted in the West from the late 1950’s onwards: Kondrashin is slightly more understated, while generating a strong sense of atmosphere allied to technical exactitude. The Shostakovich symphonies are performed similarly without hysteria, but at the same time with considerable force. Kondrashin continued to conduct distinguished concerto recordings, such as Vladimir Ashkenazy’s first recording of S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
The third phase yielded many fine recordings, often from radio broadcasts of concerts, especially with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. These include a powerful account of Scriabin’s Symphony No. 3 ‘The Divine Poem’, the concertos for cello and clarinet by Paul Hindemith, and commercial recordings of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’, the last with the Wiener Philharmoniker. Philips Records issued recordings of some of Kondrashin's live concerts with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam on LP and CD, including energetic performances of symphonies by D. Shostakovich. On the recording of D. Shostakovich's 6th Symphony Kondrashin can be heard tapping or even pounding his foot as he conducts the lively final movement.
Kirill Kondrashin’s performances were consistently musical, with an exceptionally sensitive observation of balance, textures and dynamics. Unusually for a Soviet conductor, he was equally at ease in both the Western European and Russian orchestral repertoires, and gave many stylish and memorable accounts of music from both schools. His conducting was marked by effective blend of lyrical melodiousness and dramatic romanticism, without deviating from the prevalent Russian tradition. His relatively early death robbed the musical world of a musician who was arguably reaching his peak at the time of his death. He published a nook on the art of conducting (Leningrad, 1970).
Honours and awards: Stalin Prize, first class, for conducting opera Evil Force AN Serov Bolshoi stage (1948);
Stalin Prize, second class, for conducting opera The Bartered Bride by Smetana (1949); Glinka State Prize of the RSFSR (1969) - Concert (1966-1967) and (1967-1968); People's Artist of the USSR (1969 or 1972); Honoured Artist of the RSFSR (1951); Order of the Red Banner of Labour.