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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 5.
Le nozze di Figaro:
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1
Arthur Nikisch, cond; Berlin PO;
DUTTON 9784, mono (74:42)
It is difficult to prepare modern listeners who’ve never heard such things before for the shock that can come from hearing orchestral recordings made by the old acoustic process. It’s more than just a limitation of frequency range; it is the brutal blunting of 35 to 40 musicians (the normal size to which orchestras were reduced in the recording studio) within a narrow bandwidth in which overtones on both ends of the sound spectrum do not dissipate but are muffled as if under a heavy blanket. The metal recording horns of the 1910s could not reproduce with any accuracy notes below low A (the first space on the bass clef) or above A
(A on the line above the treble clef), which is really the tenor high A and not the soprano—a range of only three octaves. Notes beyond that range struggle to be heard, and when heard, they are missing the quality of realism. They are phantom tones. It is like having the color spectrum consist only of brown, blue, and purple, of colors that try to be green or red or orange, still tinted brown.
The inherently soft quality of string sound proved maddening to early engineers, because the horn distorted any sound produced by gentleness and not by force. Fritz Kreisler and Mischa Elman solved the problem by standing very close to the horn, not playing above a
and using a lot of string vibrato, but they were soloists. String sections tended to sound like whining cats in heat.
The solution to this problem in most recordings made during those years was the use of Stroh violins and violas. A Stroh violin was only a violin insofar as it had a fingerboard and four strings, tuned in the normal fashion. In place of the beautiful bowed box that resonates sound so sweetly, it had a small gramophone horn growing out of its side. In essence, it was a metal horn playing into a metal horn. You can only imagine how ghastly it sounded—or, you can listen to the London Symphony Orchestra recordings on this CD and hear for yourself.
Balance of the remaining instruments was always a problem. Even the most brilliant conductors of that time—Karl Muck, Thomas Beecham, Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini, Oskar Fried, and Albert Coates—failed to produce satisfactory-sounding orchestral classical records. Gustav Mahler, horrified by what he heard, refused to record at all. Only two conductors solved the problem, in differing ways. One of these was Arthur Nikisch, the subject of this release. The other was an obscure house conductor for the Victor Company named Walter B. Rogers. Rogers, originally the star cornetist for John Philip Sousa’s band, had fine classical training and was hired by Victor’s classical A&R man, baritone Emilio de Gogorza, to accompany Victor singers on record between 1910 and 1924. The results were so successful that he was one of only two house conductors for Victor (the other was Josef Pasternack) whose names actually appeared on the record labels.
Nikisch’s recordings with the London Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, all of which (I believe) appear on this release, are successful in spite of the sound limitations. On some, particularly the June 1914 recordings of the Weber and Mozart overtures, the results are not as good. I suspect that some sound engineer at the HMV studios in London insisted on placing the Strohs closer to the recording horn than Nikisch wanted them; in any event, they present us with the harshest, least satisfactory string sound on the entire set.
Arthur Nikisch (1855–1922) was generally regarded as the greatest conductor of his time. Even in an era of conducting giants, none really challenged his supremacy. At home in both the opera house and concert hall, Nikisch, like Toscanini, was catapulted to stardom at a very young age, being hired as assistant conductor of the Leipzig Opera Orchestra at age 23 and promoted to principal conductor just one year later. In 1889, he became principal conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1895, he succeeded Carl Reinecke as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Hans von Bülow as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. During his 27 years with the Berlin orchestra, Nikisch remodeled it in his own image. He once stated, “It can be asserted without hesitation that in a first-rate orchestral body, every member deserves to be described as an ‘artist’,” and with this creed he encouraged the Berlin musicians to develop a sense of themselves as “soloists.” Beginning in 1904, Nikisch was also principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and in 1912 took them on a tour of the United States, the first time a European orchestra appeared in America. He died quite suddenly and unexpectedly of influenza during the 1922 epidemic. After a hurried quorum, he was replaced by the relatively young Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Judging by these recordings, Nikisch, like a few other Germans and Austrians of his time—Weingartner, Muck, and Alfred Herz—favored reasonably brisk tempos and the more modern sharp attack on
orchestral chords. Listening to other recordings, even into the 1930s, some other Germanic conductors reveal a penchant for a softer, rounder attack, more like a nudge than a real aural chop. This can be heard in the recordings of Sir George Henschel (his December 1926–January 1927 recording of Beethoven’s First Symphony), Leo Blech, and sometimes even in the recordings of Richard Strauss, who vacillated between the two styles. Toscanini, of course, was the pioneer of perfectly tuned, strongly accented chop chords.
Nikisch also had an individual and (to our ears) old-fashioned use of
. The literal translation of
is “to steal,” meaning that if this bar or note is taken slowly, a fraction of time must be subtracted from the succeeding bar or note. Toscanini eventually got this down to a science; in his later recordings, his rubato is so subtle that it often escapes the ears of casual listeners. Nikisch’s rubato is more obvious: this soft passage slowed down by a fraction of a beat; then the succeeding fast passage is sped up a fraction of a beat to make up for it. But if you take the initial tempo of the movement and count beats accurately with a metronome, by movement’s end you’ll find that he has not missed any time (or much time) at all.
His Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Beethoven Fifth was highly praised in its time. Years, change in tastes, and vast improvements in sound quality have rendered it obsolete. But is it really? I hear a great many things in this performance that were later absorbed and used by Toscanini (1933), Furtwängler (1937), even Karajan (1955) in their first commercial recordings of the symphony. Indeed, Karajan and his brother once wheeled a wind-up phonograph into a German village to play this recording for the edification of working people. Nikisch’s sense of line, of drama, of suspense and release, are all intact, despite the boxy sound. And oddly enough, the Berliners don’t sound as if they were playing Strohs. I believe I hear a violin section of about 15, with four or five violas. The basses sound uncommonly rich. The entire performance sings.
Moving from this performance to the shorter works played by the LSO is not entirely happy. Now we hear the Stroh violins, and only about eight of them (to my ear), all grating away into the horn. Moreover, their technique is not terribly good, and there are intonation problems. But again, except for the
Nozze di Figaro
Overture, taken too slowly and played sloppily by the violins, the musical conception is excellent. The horns are a marvel. I’m pretty sure that the principal horn, even at this early date, is Aubrey Brain, and that may be his brother Alfred playing alongside of him. I was particularly amazed at the rapid pace Nikisch took for the Weber overtures; their musical concept is far closer to Toscanini’s 1952 recordings than to any of Furtwängler’s performances, which totally contradicts Joseph Horowitz’s claim that the Toscanini performances are “all wrong musically.” And I don’t think it’s because of the time limitations. We’re talking about a conductor who recorded 17 sides of the Beethoven Fifth to get eight good sides that made up the whole symphony. Whatever Nikisch did, he did with thoroughness and integrity. He would never have allowed something he did not approve to be passed to the public with his name on it. Toscanini, be it noted, even conducts the slow sections of the
Overture slower than Nikisch; and, when we reach the Allegro portions, it is Nikisch and not Toscanini who practically tears the orchestra’s head off. Were the sound better, these would be electrifying performances.
I have written of Furtwängler and Toscanini because their names spring more readily to mind in connection with this repertoire, but one should not forget Nikisch’s two prize pupils, Sir Adrian Boult and Albert Coates. Boult was generally the cleaner conductor, though he recorded some outstanding performances that reflect his training, particularly his Mahler First. Coates was more emotional, and sometimes technically imprecise. Nikisch used to say to him, “Coates, you don’t need a baton to conduct, you need a bullwhip!” But his recordings of Wagner and his Tchaikovsky Sixth have often been likened to Nikisch’s style.
The differences between Nikisch and modern conductors are evident in the
Overture, its opening sections not merely relaxed but almost bucolic in quality. Again, the terrifying climaxes are Toscanini-like. Liszt’s
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1
is played not like light music, as it usually is, but as if it were a tone poem of great worth. Nikisch clearly loved every note of this; for him, it is not merely entertainment.
Michael Dutton has remastered these recordings using the CEDAR process, but to my ears he has not stripped too much ambience from the original discs to damage the sound. In fact, he has enhanced it, though of course he does not go as far as Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical does. I haven’t heard this Beethoven Fifth for more than 30 years, and certainly wasn’t sure if I’d like it when hearing it again, but I did. Highly recommended for students of conducting as well as of musical performance practices.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Egmont, Op. 84: Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven
London Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1810; Vienna, Austria
Length: 8 Minutes 32 Secs.
Der Freischütz, J 277: Overture by Carl Maria von Weber
London Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1817-1821; Dresden, Germany
Length: 9 Minutes 12 Secs.
Oberon, J 306: Overture by Carl Maria von Weber
London Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1825-1826; Dresden, Germany
Length: 8 Minutes 56 Secs.
Le nozze di Figaro, K 492: Overture by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
London Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1786; Vienna, Austria
Length: 4 Minutes 14 Secs.
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Centennial of a masterpiecce September 4, 2012
By John J.B. Miller (Kerrville, TX) See All My Reviews
"Arthur Nikisch was one of the most famous conductors, but since his career was before the days of modern recording, he is virtually unknown today. But in 1913 he made an acoustic recording of Beethoven's 5th symphony. Allowing for the fact that recording techniques were not what we know today, Nikisch's talent comes through. Remastered to remove the background "hiss" common to acoustic recordings, this can be appreciated for its artistry rather than merely for its age, which will be 100 years in November of 2013."