Boston also had a front row seat for the ultra-stellar Arthur Nikisch who led that city’s Symphony in the 1890s. Then he presided over the dual orchestral monarchy comprising the Berlin Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus for twenty-seven seasons until his death. A prime mover extraordinaire, Nikisch inspired a whole flock of conductors of assorted temperaments who, no matter what stylistic form their podium careers might take, credited him with pointing them straight to their calling. In some cases these budding maestri began as players in a Nikisch-led orchestra, picking up huge crumbs of inspiration while sitting almost directly under that famously tiny beat at the end of a long stick; others simply saw him conduct from stalls or gallery. All were magnetized.

Nikisch was an unsurpassed podium psychologist (there are few if any broken batons in his case history), an orchestral technician of the highest order, a connoisseur of tonal elegance, a master of highly imaginative but seamlessly sewn tempo changes, and, like a not insignificant number of his conductorial brethren, a ladies’ man. Handsome and Hungarian — think of how many important conductors this small country with a large personality has produced — he didn’t have to work overtime to develop his star image. When he arrived in Boston with its animated press corps, DeWolfe Howe reports in his history of the BSO,  “his hands, his hair, his bearing and manner, all his personal attributes became the subjects of written and spoken comment.” On a somewhat more lofty note the conductor Erich Kleiber after coming under the Nikisch influence some years later reported: “He would just slowly raise his left hand till the orchestra roared about him like the sea.” And Sir Adrian Boult remembered “impetuous irregularities of tempo” and “glowing warmth of tone.” The latter became a Boult trademark.

Nikisch’s not undaring conducting style had roots in the conducting of Wagner – Wagner who was a great believer in fitting tempo to the situation in which the music might find itself at this point or that, and would “arrest the waves of the ocean” in mid-performance if necessary, often, apparently, with fascinating results. This meant trouble with some parishioners. Disturbing, though, as Nikisch’s “Wagnerian” style could sometimes be with doubting types, it was persuasive enough to convince that crustiest of critics Johannes Brahms. As the famous story goes, Nikisch once conducted a Brahms symphony in Leipzig in the composer’s presence and Brahms soon became quite agitated, thinking: “Not possible, I couldn’t have written that!” … words to that effect. But after reappraising the drift of the performance he turned a corner in his mind — dialing up, one suspects, some alternate approach that had danced about assorted levels of his consciousness while composing, or thinking about composing, the symphony – then went back to confront his interpreter in the green room and barked, “You’re right, that’s the way it should go.”

Another tough critic was the violinist-pedagogue Carl Flesch, who wrote in his memoirs of Nikisch’s particular intensity: “For me he was a revelation. From Lamoureux [the noted French conductor] I was used to the kind of unimaginative time-beater who moved his baton with great precision between the four points of the compass. Now for the first time I saw a musician who inscribed in the air – in an impressionistic tracery of entirely his own design – not only the rhythmic construction but above all the dynamic and agogic nuances and the ineffable, mysterious feeling that lies hidden between the notes.”

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The great phonographic time machine has left us at least one major recording by Nikisch with his Berlin Philharmonic, a 1913 Beethoven Fifth not “live” but lively enough. And I can’t think of one remotely like it. The first movement is a fascinating tissue of carefully organized and inevitable-sounding flexibility. Signpost No. 1 would be the fanfare launching the second subject, Beethoven’s expansion of his initial “…-“ into a heraldic “DaDaDa D A S H-D A S H-D A S H H H” which Nikisch takes SLOW & SLOWER, enjoying its native plumpness to the hilt – never has this figure sounded more satisfying, like the sonic equivalent of some great seal of imperial approval.

Moving now a little faster, Nikisch cradles nicely the sweet and rather interrogatory second theme, then the pot boils faster before the development is launched, guardedly at first then more animato. Another high-profile moment when the first two of those heraldic DASHES are nailed into a granitic antiphony of massed winds and strings in angry alternation: thanks to Nikisch’s monumental tempo reduction front and rear of the orchestra seem to be growling at each other, like television wrestlers. Gruffness Incorporated. Then, Beethoven’s recapitulation achieved, Nikisch eases elegantly into the oboe’s celebrated adagio cadenza, pacing it very slowly, clothing it with his solo oboe’s connivance in a more amorous aura than most of his colleagues past and present have dared conjure.

All in an evening’s work this succulence! As is the fascinatingly dactylic note struck at bar 27 of the third movement when Beethoven’s “…-“ is powerfully renewed and Nikisch gives the first dot just a little more size and push than its brethren. Asymmetry has its charms, as we shall see again and again.