Arthur Nikisch

Arthur Nikisch conducts Beethoven

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Arthur Nikisch was one among a very small fraternity of nineteenth century conductors who made records, although Toscanini and Felix Weingartner -- both of whom made many recordings, including complete Beethoven symphony cycles -- also belong to that fraternity. Nikisch died in 1922, slightly before the introduction of the microphone that made orchestral recordings more practical, faithful, and numerous. Nikisch's 1913 recording of the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67, made with the Berlin Philharmonic, is a milestone in the history of recording as it is the first complete symphony on records, and one of only a few acoustically made symphonic recordings that transits something of the interpretive preferences of the conductor. It has been reissued, or anthologized, numerous times stretching back to an LP issue made in the early '70s.

For some reason, most reissues of this particular Beethoven set are particularly noisy, even those marketed by Deutsche Grammophon, the successor to the company that made the original recording, the German branch of HMV in England that would, within a few years, be sold off as undesirable enemy property. This is a little surprising, as the HMV products of the period are noted for their good sound and relatively quiet surfaces; apparently surviving copies of the Nikisch have not survived so well. Dutton Labs generally does an excellent job of transferring old recordings, even ones from the acoustic era. In the case of Dutton's Arthur Nikisch Conducts Beethoven, however, it seems to have stepped a bit over the line in terms of noise reduction. While the noise is nonexistent in these transfers, the sound is dull, boxy, and bland; the midrange is overly bright; and you really have to crank this disc up to get it to perform, which makes the midrange even more difficult to withstand.

Nikisch's recordings are well worth knowing, as are those of Karl Muck, to get a sense of what the interpretive tradition of German romantic music in the nineteenth century was about, and conversely, how dissimilar modern traditions are to them. For those who absolutely cannot stand surface noise, the Dutton issue will be the one of choice for Arthur Nikisch. However, many who would even be interested in delving into the audio documentation of this distant time will probably prefer the two-disc set on Symposium, which is definitely noisier, but warmer and a little easier on the eardrums.

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