Malko was born in Brailiv, Vinnytsia oblast, Ukraine. His father was Ukrainian, his mother Russian. In 1906 he completed his studies in history and philology at Saint Petersburg University. In 1909 he graduated from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where he had included Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Lyadov among his teachers. He published articles on music criticism in the Russian press and performed as a pianist and later a conductor. In 1909 he became a conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre and, six years later, the head conductor there.
From 1909 he studied conducting in Munich under Felix Mottl. In 1918 he became the director of the conservatory in Vitebsk and from 1921 taught at the Moscow Conservatory. From 1921 to 1924 he shuttled between Vitebsk, Moscow, Kiev and Kharkiv, conducting in each of these cities. In 1925 he became a professor of the Leningrad Conservatory. He became conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in 1926 and conducted the world première of the Symphony No. 1 by his pupil Dmitri Shostakovich that same year, and the premiere of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2, dedicated to him, in 1927. Malko also conducted the premiere of Nikolai Myaskovsky's 5th Symphony. Myaskovsky's 9th Symphony was dedicated to Nikolai Malko.
He was succeeded as director of the Leningrad Philharmonic by his pupil Aleksandr Gauk in 1928, and continued to teach at the Conservatory. In 1929, invited to appear in the West, he and his wife left the Soviet Union, and did not return for thirty years, until a U.S. State Department-sanctioned invitation from the Soviet Ministry of Culture brought him back to conduct in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. Once in the West, Malko lived in Vienna, Prague and in Copenhagen, where he helped establish the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with the title Permanent Guest Conductor.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1940, Malko settled in the United States, where he also taught conducting. His thoughts on conducting technique were gathered together and published in a volume entitled, The Conductor and his Baton (1950); a handbook on conducting currently available in the United States (Elizabeth A. H. Green: The Modern Conductor, 1996) is explicitly based on the principles set forth in Malko's book. From 1942 to 1946, he was music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was a community orchestra at the time.
Malko recorded extensively for EMI in Copenhagen and then with the Philharmonia, in London. In 1951 he premiered Vagn Holmboe's 7th Symphony with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. From 1954 to 1956 he lived in Britain and was principal conductor of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. Immediately after that, he moved unexpectedly to Australia, to take up the post of Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra following the hurried departure of Sir Eugene Goossens. He remained in this position until his death in Sydney five years later.
A 4-CD box set featuring Malko conducting Tchaikovsky Symphony No.2, Shostakovich Symphony No.1, Haydn Symphony No.83, Mussorgsky Prelude Khovanschina, Rimsky-Korsakov Tsar's Bride & Symphonic Suite 'Antar', Bruckner Symphony No. 7 and Kodaly Szekelyfono 'The Spinning Room' is available from Lyrita (REAM.2120). In 1952 Richard Itter, the founder of Lyrita, began to make domestic recordings of BBC transmissions using state-of-the-art disc and tape recorders. He documented his collection but rarely listened to it, thus preserving a pristine archive. The Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust began a transfer programme in 2014 with the intention to release the best and rarest of these recordings to the public. The Itter collection is predominantly of British music, but it also contains some unique international repertoire. This release is the first in a planned occasional series in which Lyrita will pay tribute to those musicians who made an important contribution to musical life in the UK.
In 1960, the Danish King Frederick IX named Malko a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog.
- "Reference for Malko's 1920 Premiere of Myaskovsky's 5th Symphony". Retrieved 2007-01-12.
- Rapoport, Paul (1996). The compositions of Vagn Holmboe : a catalog of works and recordings with indexes of persons and titles. Copenhagen : Edition W. Hansen. p. 46. ISBN 87-598-0813-6.
- Delta Omicron Archived January 27, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
| Musical Directors, St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
| Principal Conductors, Danish National Symphony Orchestra