Arthur Nikisch

Arthur Nikisch

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Anybody, and that means anybody, with any interest in classical music will have to hear this two-disc set. Why? Because it includes the first ever recording of a complete symphony: Arthur Nikisch leading the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven's Fifth preserved for posterity in 1913. It was then and remains now an astounding technical and musical achievement. In a small, windowless room, Nikisch crowded a drastically reduced orchestra around a metal horn and recorded the Fifth with two sides for each movement. That we can hear it at all is testimony to the engineers' skill. That it sounds so good is testimony to the players' talent. That it sounds so incredibly fresh and strong and cogent is testimony to the conductor's genius. There are some touches that seem faintly antique, the sustained fermata in the first statement of the main theme and the lingering ritardando in the recapitulation's oboe cadenza, but otherwise these are extraordinarily vigorous performances. They are also stunningly contiguous performances. Despite the anti-musical conditions, Nikisch holds the long line and maintains concentration from start to finish. Filled out with equally compelling performances of Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro Overture, Berlioz's Carnaval Overture, Weber's Oberon and Frieschütz Overture, and a Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt, this two-disc set is mandatory listening. Symposium's 1991 digital transfers are faint, like a radio signal from a now-dead planet, but still palpably real.

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