NIKOLAI MALKO

1883-1961

I found a music blogger on the internet worrying about whether the Russian Nikolai Malko, some of whose recordings had been gathered together in a series titled “Great Conductors,” could really be termed Great. Oh yes, he was quite all right, most of the time, but . . . Oh dear, I find quite distasteful this habit some professional critics have of regularly pigeon-holing conductors, or tenors for that matter, in ranks, levels, tiers, as if somehow Conductor A had been issued a seat in the Grand Tier and Conductor B could only afford space up in the “Gods,” the peanut gallery! Obviously some conductors have more chutzpah than others, some have more exposure, and yes, some have more soul. However . . .

Now take the case of Nikolai Malko. He held some distinguished posts in his career, musical direction of the Leningrad Philharmonic in the Twenties for instance, a generation prior to his student Mravinsky, and principal guest conductor duties in Copenhagen later on. He also labored in Chicago’s Grant Park, not according to the categorizers a first-tier gig, and he finished his days in the exotic Down Under where the less than super-famous Sydney Symphony plays. But this Malko, who like Hermann Abendroth studied with the great Munich maestro Felix Mottl – who might have made recordings if he hadn’t had a fatal seizure conducting Tristan in 1911 – and was a colleague of Napravnik and Felix Blumenfeld (my cousin, I’m proud to say) at the Maryinsky Theater when Leningrad was still St. Petersburg, this Malko has left a number of recordings with London’s crack Philharmonia that are without a doubt superb: a curvaceous and dreamy Prince Igor overture of Borodin that’s absolutely on air, a gentle and elegant Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker that has at least one heterosexual male  fantasizing about the peach fuzz on the ballerinas’ pretty arms, a Prokofiev Seventh Symphony in which with artful inflection Malko combines in the second movement crisp rhythm and an essential suggestion that the music is halfway to serious inebriation.

And back to my lecture . . .  Any reasonably close reader of this volume will have noticed that I’m ambivalent about the artistry of Artur Bodanzky and that I’m not a huge fan of Ernest Ansermet as he taps his reserves of straight-and-narrow. I really need to hear more of Gabriel Pierné. But no conductor has been allowed in this book without showing a capacity to give, at least intermittently, GREAT pleasure. And for that the whole podium crew can have a seat in my symphony hall wherever they like. The bottom (or last!) line, as intoned so famously by a yachting-capped Joe E. Brown riding in a convertible at the end of a celebrated Billy Wilder comedy, is that “nobody’s perfect.” From neighboring decades there are other conductors who on glaring occasions have rather seriously disappointed me — Boehm, Munch, Mravinsky, Celibidache — but my, the list of their achievements would fill a large file drawer.

Meanwhile I wish there was some recorded evidence of the conducting of conductor-composer-pianist-pedagogue Felix Blumenfeld (1863-1931), perhaps best known these days as the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz. This Felix-on-the-spot premiered works of Rimsky Korsakoff and the young Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky and trumpeted the cause of Wagner on Russian soil. And what a good time he gave his budding musician nephew Heinrich Neuhaus, later the teacher of Sviatoslav Richter, when Heinrich was a teenager and Uncle Felix came to visit, staying up most of the night playing Wagner’s Ring for his admiring relation on the family piano. Felix was reputed to be something of a womanizer but he must bow to his older brother Stanislav in the annals of adultery: Stan had an affair with Tchaikovsky’s morphine-addict niece Tanya Davidov and produced a child, Georges Tchaikovsky, which explains how the author of this study is related to the great composer’s illegitimate great nephew, to whom he willed his estate. Stan’s legitimate great grandson recently plied me with wonderful zakuski in Bonn. But I’ve fallen off the track . . .