Two major milestones in the history of recorded music
XR remastering helps unlock the secrets of these early symphonic recordings
Reissue Review (Nikisch, LP reissue, 1974)
The Beethoven Fifth Symphony was the very first symphonic work to be recorded in its entirety and Nikisch's 1913 records with the Berlin Philharmonic enjoys much celebrity. It lingered in the HMV catalogue for many years and is undoubtedly one of the more familiar performances in the current set. It was broadcast not so long ago in the BBC Radio 3 series, "Historic Performances on Record". The performance has obvious historic interest though the observant listener will not fail to note that Nikisch was not above taking poetic licence; the restatement of the first movement is far from straightforward. I recall seeing somewhere that contemporary reviews spoke of the extraordinary realism of this recording when it first appeared. Having heard an admittedly much later record on a superb EMG machine of the period and been astonished by the sense of presence and colour it achieved, I can imagine that this Beethoven performance might well sound impressive on an appropriate period gramophone of the highest quality. However the present transfers of the acoustic discs in this anthology cannot disguise the primitive sound...
R.L., Gramophone magazine, January 1974 (link)
Notes on the recordings:
I was tempted to title this release "Historic Gramophone Premières" - after all, it's regularly stated that Arthur Nikisch's 1913 recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was the first complete recording of any symphony to be made. I've heard it introduced as such on BBC Radio Three, and I've read it in erudite biographies. Yet it's not true - it wasn't even the first recording of this symphony. For that we have to turn the clock back a further three years, and dig out a recording made by Friedrich Kark and the Odeon Symphony Orchestra in 1910, issued on the Odeon label. Perhaps it is better suggested that Nikisch's was the first by a "proper", named and highly regarded profesisonal orchestra, under a conductor still rated today as one of the greatest of all time.
Meanwhile Oskar Fried's Eroica was indeed the work's first full recording (though, as often, not all the repeats are there), though in the UK Henry Wood had already recorded an abridged version on six sides some two years earlier, as was his wont at the time - you can find his 1923 Schubert Unfinished Symphony also in a condensed version on Pristine Audio (PASC 041). In that case Wood used four shortish sides, the entire recording running to a mere 12'43". Given a little more space, one might thus usefully explore what exactly constitutes a première recording...
Niggling questions aside, both of these recordings are indeed major historical events in the history of recorded music. Despite the primitive nature of the recording technology used, both offer serious, excellent interpretations by two of the finest exponents of Beethoven of their era. Whilst neither conductor dates back to the era of Beethoven himself, both were firmly grounded in the Romantic musical tradition which began with the composer. Nikisch was regarded by Brahms as having given the finest interpretation possible of his Fourth Symphony, whilst Fried's closeness to Mahler resulted in him giving the second performance of the Ninth Symphony in 1913, together with the first recording of a Mahler Symphony, his Second, also made in 1924 with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra.
To modern ears these acoustic recordings can seem particularly dim and distant, with their orchestras necessarily cut down and their instruments adapted to recordings made tightly gathered around a single horn. Trying to unlock the sound of these performances from their faint, hissy, crackly and, at times, distorted origins, is going to be a tricky business for any remastering engineer. Dynamic range is very limited, even more severely their frequency range.
And yet there is perhaps far more to be heard and appreciated than first meets the ear when hearing the records "raw", and these XR restorations have unearthed a remarkable level of depth and detail. The dynamic range of these recordings has been pushed to the limit, and a far fuller re-equalised sound, bringing out the (albeit limited) bass, allied to a far more rounded lower midrange, helps convey the true sound of the instruments to a degree few will have appreciated or even noticed before, and hopefully opened the drama of these performances up to some who might otherwise havc dismissed them as too archaic to be worthwhile. If this is the case then I would judge this venture to be a success - when given a minute or so to attune my ears it certainly works for me.
Notes from Wikipedia
Arthur Nikisch Hungarian: Nikisch Artúr; 12 October 1855 – 23 January 1922) was a Hungarian conductor who performed internationally, holding posts in Boston, London and - most importantly - Berlin. He was considered an outstanding interpreter of the music of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Liszt. Johannes Brahms praised Nikisch's performance of his Fourth Symphony as "quite exemplary, it's impossible to hear it any better."
Nikisch studied under Felix Otto Dessoff, Johann von Herbeck, and Joseph Hellmesberger, Jr. at the Vienna Conservatory, where he won prizes for composition and performance on violin and piano. However, he was to achieve most of his fame as a conductor. In 1878 he moved to Leipzig and became second conductor of the Leipzig Opera in 1878 and 1882 promoted as principal conductor. He gave the premiere of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in 1884.
On 1 July 1885 Nikisch married Amelie Heussner (1862-1938), a singer and actress, who had been engaged the preceding years at the Kassel court theatre with Gustav Mahler. Their son Mitja (1899-1936) later became a noted pianist.
Nikisch later became conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and from 1893 to 1895 director of the Royal Opera in Budapest. In 1895 he succeeded Carl Reinecke as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. In the same year he became principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and held both positions until his death.
He was a pioneer in several ways. In 1912 he took the London Symphony Orchestra to the United States, a first for a European orchestra. In 1913, he made one of the earliest recordings of a complete symphony, Beethoven's 5th, with the Berlin Philharmonic, a performance later reissued on LP and CD by EMI. He also made a series of early recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra, some of which display the portamento characteristic of early twentieth century playing.
He died in Leipzig in 1922, and was buried there. Immediately after his death, the square where he had lived was renamed Nikischplatz, and in 1971 the city created the Arthur Nikisch Prize for young conductors.
His legacy is as one of the founders of modern conducting, with deep analysis of the score, a simple beat, and a charisma that let him bring out the full sonority of the orchestra and plumb the depths of the music. Nikisch's conducting style was greatly admired by Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini, Sir Adrian Boult, Fritz Reiner, Ervin Nyíregyházi, and many others. Reiner said, "It was [Nikisch] who told me that I should never wave my arms in conducting, and that I should use my eyes to give cues."
From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Nikisch
Notes from Wikipedia
Oskar Fried (August 10, 1871 – July 5, 1941) was a German conductor and composer. An admirer of Gustav Mahler, Fried was the first conductor to record a Mahler symphony. Fried also held the distinction of being the first foreign conductor to perform in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, Fried eventually left his homeland to work in the Soviet Union after the political rise of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party, and became a Soviet citizen in 1940.
Born in Berlin, the son of a Jewish shopkeeper, he worked as a clown, a stable boy and a dog trainer before studying composition with Iwan Knorr (1891-92, Hoch Conservatory) and Engelbert Humperdinck (as private student) in Frankfurt. He later moved to Düsseldorf to study painting and art history. After a spell in Paris, he returned to Berlin in 1898 to study counterpoint with Xaver Scharwenka.
The performance of his composition Das trunkene Lied ("the drunken song") for chorus and orchestra brought Fried his first public success and led to his appointment in 1904 as the conductor of a Berlin choral society.
Fried first met Gustav Mahler in 1905. The meeting resulted in an invitation to conduct Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony in Berlin in November 1905 (Otto Klemperer led the offstage band during this performance). The next year Fried introduced Russia to Mahler's music when he performed the same work in St Petersburg. From 1907 to 1910 he directed a choral society known as the Sternscher Gesangverein in Berlin. In 1913 Fried conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the second performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony.
In 1922 Fried went to the USSR as the first foreign conductor invited to perform after the Russian Revolution, and was greeted by Lenin on the station platform. In 1924 Fried made the first recording of any Mahler symphony, the Second, with the Berlin Staatskapelle in a performance that has been praised as "remarkably successful" and a "highly adventurous undertaking for an acoustic recording" which required "careful planning and experimentation". That same year Fried also made the first recording of any completeBruckner symphony: his Seventh.
Driven away from Germany by the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, in 1934 Fried left Germany for the Georgian city of Tbilisi in the Soviet Union. He conducted the Tbilisi opera and later the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, eventually becoming a Soviet citizen. He died in Moscow in 1941.
From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Fried