Moscow State Symphony Orchestra
Classical TV

By Damian Fowler

Pavel Kogan conducts the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra at the Munich Philharmonie in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor Op.23 with soloist Alexei Sultanov.

RUSSIAN MAESTRO PAVEL Kogan is celebrated for his bold and passionate accounts of classic Russian composers – especially Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Rimsky-Korsakov.   Since 1989, he’s led the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra (as Music Director and Chief Conductor) with a bullish determination and has turned it into a powerful and adept ensemble.   Kogan led the orchestra in a series of 1990 recordings of Rachmaninov’s three symphonies, described by one critic as “gutsy performances…red in tooth and claw.”

It’s not surprising that Kogan is such a musical powerhouse, when you consider his mom and dad.   He was born, in 1952, into a distinguished musical family – his parents are both famous violinists Leonid Kogan and Elisaveta Gilels, and his uncle is the celebrated pianist Emil Gilels.  He is part, as one enthusiastic critic wrote, of a “fervour-soaked Soviet aristocracy.”   Maybe a touch over the top, but the point is well made.

From an early age, the young Kogan divided his musical attention between conducting and the violin and, at the age of 18, won the prestigious Sibelius International Violin Competition.  Though he toured for a few years in Europe and America as a soloist, he turned his attention to conducting and made his debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1974.

It’s been a slow burn for Kogan who hasn’t achieved the international stardom of Gergiev or Ashkenazy, but with his undoubted brilliance on the podium he has started to get the recognition he deserves, especially as the leader of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra (MSSO).  The orchestra, which was formed in 1943, developed close relationships with prominent twentieth-century Russian composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich and its reputation grew.  

When Kogan took over in 1989, he expanded the orchestra’s repertoire bringing in contemporary works from Russian and beyond.  Moreover, the orchestra tours extensively – 20 to 50 concerts each year – and this is how word of his prowess started to spread.  Writing in the Los Angeles Times, critic Mark Swed called the MSSO the world’s “least-heralded great orchestra.”  He praised Kogan’s musicianship and his panache and joked that his swagger reminded him of a “cocky prizefighter…a tough guy.”

Kogan has also worked extensively in the United States.  He made his debut with the Utah Symphony in 1997, where he served as the Principal Guest Conductor until 2005.  Since then, he has made regular guest appearances with other North American symphony orchestras including Houston, New Jersey and Toronto.

It’s worth noting that Kogan’s own orchestra, the MSSO, did not make its US debut until October 2001.  When he and the musicians arrived in New York, the city was still reeling from the September 11 attacks.    Kogan offered Rachmaninov’s bittersweet Vocalise as a memorial to the victims.  The New York Times praised the orchestra’s “rich string sound” and the maestro’s “penchant for thoughtful, expressive phrasing.”