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CD Review

Nikisch Conducts Beethoven

Legendary Recording

London Symphony Orchestra/Arthur Nikisch
Dutton CDBP9784
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This recording of the Beethoven 5th (11 October 1913) has legendary status. It was once thought that this was the first complete recording of a symphony. As I listened to this what occurred to me is that people who loved classical music when this was issued had to demonstrate that love physically. This recording was issued on 4 discs. The average time per side was around 3 minutes or so. That means the person listening to this had to get up from his seat eight times, walk to the turntable, turn over the disc, put the needle back into the groove…and maybe crank it up, too…then walk back to their seat only to repeat this Sisyphean journey…or they might have, years later, been able to get up only twice (was this recording ever available in that format?) but there would still be a pause as the tone arm lifted, waved from the disc, another shellac disc then dropped on top of the previous one (I can imagine the damage done by gravity) then the tone arm would wave itself back over the disc and thunck into it…maybe accurately some of the times…and then the music would resume…it boggles my mind to think about things like this. Given the sound, they must have really loved this gadget….

As an experiment I put the disc in the player, then went to the timer over the stove and set it for 3:33 minutes. I pressed the button, went to my seat and played the music. When the timer went off I paused the music, went over to the timer and set it at 3:33, pushed the button, returned to my seat and played the music again. I repeated this process several times to get a feel for what those people had to go through. The first thing I noticed was how pause perfect the engineers had to be to know when the orchestra (as abridged as it had to be for acoustic recordings with the players sitting in a semi-circle around the horn) had to stop for a side change. After awhile the whole thing became annoying, however, so I returned from my time travel.

As for the interpretation I must first make the point that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most perfect every composed. That is not to say it's the best, just the most perfect. It is as if everything is expected and everything is a surprise. I haven't heard a bad recording of the piece. When I first heard Stokowski's stereo version I remember thinking that the opening was odd, different from the Carlos Kleiber I had in my collection. Kleiber takes the kind of approach that Weingartner did, shaking his fist at fate. Stokowski seemed to treat the opening with more gravitas. The fate motif is something to which you will submit whether you fight it, like Macbeth, or not. I wondered where Stokowski got that concept of the piece. It was valid but different. Then I heard the Nikisch and had a eureka moment. Stokowski would have heard Nikisch in person (Nikisch was a regular guest conductor of the London Symphony from 1904 according to the interesting notes) and very likely had this recording in his own collection. It would certainly have influenced Stokowski and led to his approach to the symphony (the exception is the NBC Symphony Orchestra recording which is more like Weingartner, but I often feel that when Stokowski was conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra he was exploiting the orchestra's precision and using it to its fullest, kind of like an equestrian given a spirited horse and wanting to take it through its paces). Okay, after listening to it several times I have to say I don't find it particularly memorable.

As for the transfer, the only comparison I have is with an EMI CD release, which has the first movement only. Listening to it I noticed there is less bass and you can definitely hear a needle, groove swish. There is another recording of the piece but that is on a set that I find outrageously priced ergo haven't listened to.

Okay, I skipped most of the other lagniappes but did dip into the Hungarian #1 with the London Symphony Orchestra. You have to hear this to believe it. It is lugubriously slow, the orchestra sounds like a high school band today; if this was considered a valid interpretation in 1914 I wonder where the hell that notion came from. Of course my only comparisons are from times far removed from 1914 (forty and fifty years later) and I have to think that when this was recorded the company that did so felt it was valid…questions…questions… As a tonic I put on Scherchen's recording with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra…it is also around 12 minutes (to Stokowski's nine, which I also used as ear wash…the opening will knock you on your ass!!!…where the hell did this come from??? this is the genuine article!!! Frankly once you hear Stokowski I think you've heard it all)

Do I recommend the disc? Yes. If nothing else bathe yourself in the experience of changing sides. Compare it with Weingartner's 1934 recording (the difference in sound world between acoustic and electric is amazing). Learning beats the alternative. If I taught a class in classical music appreciation I'd require that and the Liszt for analysis in the art of interpretation including research into any possible sources Nikisch had for his…it is very strange and the playing as if he might have been walking the orchestra through the piece…???

Copyright © 2008, Robert Stumpf II