OBITUARY: Anatole Fistoulari

John Amis
Monday 21 August 1995 23:02 BST

At the age of seven Anatole Fistoulari conducted Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony in his home city, Kiev. Thirty years later, in 1944, he was appointed principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, celebrating his marriage to Anna Mahler by directing her father Gustav's Fourth Symphony. He had a contract for 120 concerts that year. It seemed as if his career was made.

And yet, after the Second World War, that career went into a gentle decline. Perhaps his early ascent had been too steep. After one of Fistoulari's concerts as a boy in St Petersburg a well-known critic wrote: ''Uncanny memory, extraordinary rhythmic sense and overpowering will, unknown in a child of his age, make him an entire master of the orchestra - these are the qualities that give a promise of this child becoming a truly great master.''

At 13 Fistoulari was invited to conduct Saint-Saens's Samson and Delilah in Bucharest. Engagements followed in Germany and the Netherlands. At 25 he conducted several seasons in Paris for the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin, who clearly thought the world of him. This must have been the basis of Fistoulari's talent for accompanying soloists, for if you could follow Chaliapin you could follow anybody. More accompanying came next, conducting for Massine's Ballets Russes in Paris, London and touring all over the United States. When war was declared he joined the French Army but was invalided out in 1940. From Cherbourg he escaped to London, arriving penniless. He had to leave his parents in Paris but was soon to meet and marry Anna Mahler, likewise escaping from the Germans.

Meeting him a little later, I found Fisty like a character out of a Russian play or out of one of Caryl Brahms's satirical novels, living a hand-to- mouth existence but always putting on a show of some grandeur.

He gave some impressive performances in 1943-44 with the LPO; but 120 concerts - one every three days - proved too much for both parties. Fisty had talent but not enough symphonic repertoire, and he swotted by rehearsing his gestures in the mirror while listening to other conductors' gramophone records. He soon learned those gestures by heart; so did the orchestra. At the end of the season Fisty's contract was not renewed. The orchestra forgot about him so completely that in the LPO 50th anniversary booklet in 1982 Fistoulari's name was not even mentioned in the list of principal conductors. He did, however, accompany them on the first British orchestral tour of Russia in 1956.

I saw a good deal of Fisty while I was working in the LPO office; he had no conversation, seemed ill-at-ease, blinking and smoking continually, coming alive only when conducting. After being shunned by the LPO he formed in 1946 his own orchestra, the London International, but it was a pick-up band playing one-night stands and without the stability of film or recording contracts.

Also shunned by the LPO at that time, I took on the job of getting the players together, usually a different band for each concert, sometimes quite a good line-up in town but often a shambles out on tour. Nevertheless some tours were fun - for example, returning to food-rationed London from Dublin with french horns and double-basses stuffed with goodies, or giving a concert at the opening of Butlin's Holiday Camp in Filey, Yorkshire. The great Billy Butlin watched with growing concern the pianist Solomon sitting with folded arms as Fisty conducted the long opening tutti of Beethoven's C minor concerto. After two minutes Butlin turned to me: ''There's no trouble about Mr Solomon's fee, is there?'' he asked.

On all these journeys I never saw Fisty read anything but the Daily Mirror. He was never lively company but we all liked him, in spite of his being devious if money and back payments were mentioned. His English remained rudimentary. On one occasion, the pianist Eileen Joyce decided at the last moment to play Franck's Symphonic Variations first and her Weber second, and Fisty, obliged to announce this, made his longest ever platform speech: ''Franck com' faerst''.

Fisty's gramophone records confirm that he was at his best with soloists or ballet; the recordings of Grieg/Falla with Clifford Curzon or the complete Swan Lake are first-class examples. He would stick rigorously to a soloist, and his tempi were always just right for the dancers. When de Basil's Company came to Covent Garden in 1946 the London International Orchestra was in the pit and Fisty did some excellent performances of The Prodigal Son and Le Coq d'Or.

After that, times were hard. World-famous soloists valued his work but the musical establishment here ignored him. The last time I saw him was in Lugano in the late Sixties, conducting Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony with the Radio Svizzera; he made that fifth-rate orchestra sound almost first- rate - the work of a very considerable talent.

In later years he was crippled with arthritis but lovingly tended by his second wife, the Scottish violinist Elizabeth Lockhart.

John Amis

Anatole Fistoulari, conductor: born Kiev 20 August 1907; Principal Conductor, London Philharmonic Orchestra 1943-44; married first Anna Mahler (one daughter; marriage dissolved), secondly Elizabeth Lockhart; died London 21 August 1995.

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