Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Fragility of Memory

The Hungarian conductor Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922) was the first real commuting superstar conductor, simultaneously holding positions with the top bands in Berlin, Leipzig, and London while travelling regularly to Russia, Hungary and elsewhere (he was also director of the Boston Symphony for four years). A charismatic conductor with a gently persuasive rehearsal style who always reserved a larged degree of spontaneity for performances, the closest recent equivalent was perhaps Carlos Kleiber; Kleiber, however, never sustained the volume of activity that Nikisch did, and certainly never went into a concert risking the imprecise or incomplete rehearsals Nikisch, with apparently some routine, would risk.

Nikisch was, however, the last great conductor not to have been well-recorded. He died before electrical recording and the few acoustic recording he made are all almost unlistenable, making Nikisch the last major conductor whose reputation is based essentially on the words of those who had witnessed his performances. Fortunately, RadiOM has archived William Malloch's 1965 KPFK documentary on Nikisch (here), an oral history composed of interviews with musicians who had worked with Nikisch. I was fortunate to have heard this documentary in a re-broadcast on KPFA sometime in the '70, where Malloch, the former music director of the station and an interesting composer, held forth for an hour each week with public and extra-academic musicology that was pioneering in its use of historical recordings of musical performances and interviews to investigate performance practice in the early 20th century. (RadiOM also has two Malloch documentaries on Stravinsky and a program on Revueltas which I recommend highly; Malloch's audio oral history I remember Mahler has been commercially available on an album with collected Mahler broadcasts by the NY Phil.)

As much joy as I take from rediscovering some Malloch programs online, it comes with the deep regret that such programming would simply be impossible today. Sure, there is much more information readily available online, between which one can flit at any time, pace, or place one likes, but the qualitative experience I had as a teenager, of being able to stumble upon a program like this (in my case while working at a summer job silk-screening shopping bags) and to become a regular listener to a trusted local voice like Malloch's is something very special.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Mahler is also near the end of the line of great conductors known only by their reputations - there aren't any recordings of him, are there?

Charles said...

There is a film of Nikisch conducting; silent, of course, but illuminating. I sent it to Kleiber and he had fun trying to figure out what work it must have been, from the short surviving list made by Oskar Messter when he made the film.

BTW, there are piano rolls of Mahler. There are no known films -- even newsreels. Bernstein used to say he had "seen" Mahler on film, but no one else ever did. Alas.

Daniel Wolf said...


the ten years which separate Mahler's death from that of Nikisch were critical in the development of acoustic sound recording, so the lack of any good recording of Mahler is unsurprising while not having any of Nikisch is tragic given both his reputation and the suggestiveness of the few existing recordings (including Berlioz Roman Carnival, Beethoven V, Weber Oberon Overture, Brahms and Liszt Hungarian Dances).


I would really love to see that film as well as to learn what Kleiber thought of it!

Charles said...

The Nikisch is on one of the BBC 'Art of Conducting' films we did. Volume 2, I think.

Carlos was utterly fascinated by it, and we puzzled over it some while. Messter cooked up an odd split-screen effect, so that the viewer could see him from front and back simultaneously. It's quite well documented, but only in obscure sources.

Because of the uncertainty of fps standards, it's not as reliable as anything today -- but, it exists. Hope you enjoy it!

Morpheus said...

I am sure Nikisch would've been happy to make some recordings, had the technology been in place.

He was one of the greatest conductors of his time.

Matthew said...

Nikisch did make a handful of recordings, including one mind-blower: the first complete recording of Beethoven's Fifth (with the Berlin Phil, ca. 1913), with absinthe-drop rubati and portamenti to make one's historically-informed hair curl. It might be my favorite version.

Just about everything you need to know about Nikisch can be gleaned from his picture among the other portraits of BSO music directors in Symphony Hall. Everybody else up until Ozawa looks like a bank director, dark suits and (in the early days) high collars. Nikisch turns up in a slouchy, louche pose, thoughtful countenance, uncombed hair, and decked out in an enormous fur collar. Awesome.