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Nikisch and the Berliner Philharmoniker in the Alte Philharmonie. | Picture: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker

When Hans von Bülow took over the direction of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1887, he was considered among the most important conductors of his time. In contrast, his successor’s name was hardly known: Arthur Nikisch. Born in Hungary, he had just returned from America, where he had conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for four years.

Nikisch, who began his musical career as a violinist in the Viennese Court Opera Orchestra, and was also head of the Leipziger Gewandhausorchester, was possessed of a great sensitivity and intuition and he captured the musicians’ hearts.

They let themselves be led by him unquestioningly; they gave their all for him. “It can be asserted unhesitatingly that in a first-class orchestra every single member deserves the designation ‘artist’”, Nikisch once wrote. With this credo he made an essential contribution to the Berlin musicians’ “soloistic” self-image. Through the present day it has remained one of the distinct qualities of the Philharmonic musicians.

Specialised in the aesthetics of sound

The contrast to Bülow could not have been greater: while the former’s interpretations were characterised by intellectual depth and classical rigour, Nikisch, who conducted with quiet and sparing gestures, banked on romantic, sensual colouring and a rhapsodic breadth which felt improvised.

He shifted the programmatic emphasis, not only launching German repertoire, but also conducting compositions by Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Liszt, Strauss, Mahler – and particularly Bruckner. He was, however, unsympathetic about new compositional ideas from Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. Unlike Bülow, he was not fanatical about rehearsals; instead, he relied on the intuition of the moment and considered himself re-creator of the works at concerts.

Under his direction the orchestra became increasingly prominent on the international scene; any and all soloists of distinction came to Berlin to perform with the Philharmoniker. But that was not all. Nikisch took many trips with the orchestra and in this way enhanced their international reputation.

At the request of Kaiser Wilhelm II, he travelled to Moscow to the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896 and in the following year captured the hearts of the French audience at a legendary guest concert in Paris – the French had at first harboured a certain resentment towards the Berlin ensemble after losing the Franco-Prussian War.

Nikisch conducted the Philharmonic for 27 years. In this time period he conducted more than 600 concerts before dying of influenza in 1922 at the age of 66 – surprising many.