With thousands of great classical artists who record avidly and prolifically, why should a collector devote any attention to a conductor who considered records obscene and cut only three in his entire life?
Because, with Sergiu Celibidache barely gone, EMI released his first "official" records and theyre absolutely sensational. Theyre called the "First Authorized Edition" even though, were Celi still alive, hed probably sue. Thats only one of the ironies here. The "authorization" comes from Celis son, whose liner notes attempt to dodge the rank hypocrisy of what he and his mother have done – attempting to preserve a legacy that the conductor himself had no desire to save; claiming to thwart concert bootlegs which he never tried to suppress; and striving to issue high quality recordings which he rejected as the mechanical falsification of a spontaneous moment and therefore philosophically impossible.
In the first three years after Celi's death, the Edition grew to thirty volumes, all featuring the Munich Philharmonic in concerts between 1982 and 1995. (Although they claim to be unedited, several bear multiple recording dates.) The first ten present symphonies of Haydn (#s 92, 103 and 104), Mozart (40), Beethoven (4 and 5), Schubert (9), Schumann (3 and 4>) and Tchaikovsky (5 and 6); Tchaikovskys Romeo and Juliet Overture, Moussorgskys Pictures at an Exhibition, Debussys La Mer and Iberia and a Wagner program. The second dozen are devoted to Bruckners Te Deum, Mass # 3 and Symphonies 3 through 9. A further eight comprise the Beethoven symphonies (except the First, but with two versions of the Fourth), the Brahms symphonies, German Requiem and Haydn Variations and the Schumann Symphony # 2. In late 2004, EMI released eleven more volumes – click here for a report.
These are deeply challenging readings which make sense not only on their own musical terms, but as living examples of the philosophical convictions which shaped Celis art and blocked a conventional career.
As a Zen Buddhist Celi believed that reality lay in the relationships among things, and so he gives inner voices far more prominence than usual. His Bruckner in particular emerges in radiant hues rather than as a melody squatting atop a solid mass of harmonic sludge. Zen also seeks understanding through meditation and direct observation rather than personal interpretation, and so Celis performances are obsessively rehearsed and tend to be relatively free of overt drama or expressive rhetoric.
Celi also considered himself a scientist, exploring the relationship of sound to the acoustic space in which it is performed. Perhaps for that reason the CDs contain applause not only after but also before each piece begins, as well as lengthy breaks between movements, all to establish the sonic atmosphere into which the music is placed. Celi felt that in order for the listener to process music, tempos have to decelerate as writing becomes more dense. Thus, while his Mozart and Haydn are relatively traditional, every one of his readings of the romantic repertoire sets a new record for deliberation -- his La Mer runs 33 minutes, compared to a "normal" 23 or so; his Romeo and Juliet expands from 18 to 28; and his Bruckner Eighth lingers an extra half-hour. (Even so, Celis theory hardly explains why he needed 24 minutes for Wagners simple Siegfried Idyll, normally 16.)
Finally, Celi was a mystic who had no interest in tradition or the musical mainstream. Intending his music as a continuous flow, he omits all the standard repeats. (Ironically, Celis practice is validated by the very electronic convenience that he so despised; repeats arose in the 1700s to familiarize audiences with music they were lucky to hear a few times in their lives, while now we can just push a button.) To further blend the music, he downplays tension and eases emotional impact by tempering dynamics so that phrases rise and subside smoothly. Unfortunately, by reining in climaxes Celis endings tend to be disappointing, as we are denied the expected emotional catharsis; thus the final chord of the Schubert "Great" Symphony lingers and fades out (like the Dvorak New World) in lieu of its usual blaze of glory.
So much for theory. Celis results are hallucinatory. Time and again, his readings draw you into their world and demand (and repay) full attention. Details emerge. Tones hover. Emotions evolve. His Pictures at an Exhibition transforms the usual whirlwind tour through an art gallery into a probing study of transitory mood. Romeo and Juliet becomes a deep meditation, its tragic end foreshadowed from the outset. Iberia is a shimmering dreamscape, suspended in time. And his richly-layered textures patiently unify the sprawling bulk of Bruckner into a towering organism.
Indeed, it is in the Bruckner symphonies that all of Celis qualities coalesce to achieve, in Marcus Herzogs apt phrase, a simultaneity of opposites -- detail within architecture, power without melodrama, melody embedded in harmony. Above all, Celi makes the artificial conventions of symphonic form seem so natural and utterly human. Alongside Furtwanglers strikingly different but equally valid sense of personal drama, this is the most magnificent Bruckner Ive ever heard.
And yet, my enthusiasm seems to be a minority opinion. When the first ten discs were released in late 1997, the prestigious Gramophone barely noticed with a short consolidated review. Consumers, too, seemed indifferent, as several discs quickly passed through the Berkshire Record Outlets closeout lists. The exhaustive Fanfare was more attentive, but its battery of critics generally belittled the philosophical overtones as pseudo-scientific foolishness and flayed the music as an anathema, unbearably wayward, painfully distended, plodding, bland, enervated, soggy, pedantic, spiritless, glacial, lethargic, ponderous, wearisome, you get the idea. With all due respect to this venerable group of experts and their toxic thesaurus, I found Celis concerts to be not only fascinating examples of applied spiritual thinking, but immensely moving and deeply affecting. All but a few induced me to rethink a familiar work and left an indelible impression in whose glow most other recordings sound pale and superficial.
But perhaps my affection rises from a deeper source. When Celi gave these concerts he was an old man. Other aged conductors have left us interpretations that distilled the musical attitudes they had come to develop over a lifetime of work and study. Toscaninis late readings were exactingly precise; Stokowskis basked in lush sound; Klemperers were grimly determined; Walters reveled in sheer beauty; Casals were intensely human dramas. Celi, too, had something important to tell us about the human condition and he imparted that wisdom in his valedictory work.
As he neared the end of his long artistic life, having traveled far, searched thoroughly and thought deeply, Celi came to a profound and remarkable conclusion: music isnt a metaphor for lifes struggles, beauties, emotions, triumphs or anything else; it just is. And from that flows a feeling of perfect balance and deep contentment, a peaceful acceptance of where his life had led and where ours hopefully might lead as well.
As I travel toward my own senior years, I hope to cherish these discs even more than I do now. I think theyll help me prepare for the final part of that journey.
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In a producers note in the first ten volumes of the "First Authorized Edition," the President of EMI laments that "there is little to be heard on record of [Celis] performances." Huh? In the Gutmann Archives (otherwise known as my basement), beyond the new discs I counted 64 Celibidache CDs and a dozen of his LPs. Perhaps its a matter of definition. For understandable reasons, EMI may choose to count only major label "official" releases, while mine are all Italian bootlegs. But until the EMI releases (later joined by radio broadcasts on DG sets), those of us who were fascinated by Celis work had no other choice and were grateful for whatever we could get. And since Celi refused to sanction conventional releases, moral objections to piracy of his concert broadcasts seem irrelevant.
When repertoire overlaps, the new EMI CDs are consistently superior to the bootlegs, not only sonically but also because, under his training, the Munich Philharmonic became Celis instrument of choice, with which he was able to realize most fully the qualities that ultimately came to make him unique. Since release of more "official" late Munich concerts is at best uncertain, you may want to supplement the present EMI sets with some bootlegs (assuming you can find them):
For sheer beauty of orchestral sound, get Ravels Daphnis et Chloe Suites 1 and 2 (superbly recorded in Munich, date unknown) on Originals 803; its far better than other versions on Fonit Cetra 2008 (Milan, 1970) and Exclusive 61/62 (Paris, 1974). Another knock-out is Rimsky-Korsakovs Scheherazade (Munich, date unknown) coupled with a hypnotic Debussy Afternoon of a Faun (London) on Exclusive 82.
Slowness doesnt always mean reverential, but Celis deliberate recordings of great religious works can be magnificent. Try Bachs Mass in b minor (Munich, 1990) on Exclusive 33/34; Mozarts "Great" Mass in c minor (Rome, 1960) on Fonit Cetra 2007; Mozarts Requiem (Milan 1962) on Arkadia 425 (but not the 64-minute 1987 Munich version on Artists Live 039, which does seem to lumber); the Faure Requiem (London, 1982) on Exclusive 52 (but note that the recording quality is blurry); and the Brahms German Requiem (Milan 1960) on Hunt 846.
We also have fine examples of Celi accompanying two of his favorite pianists: Michelangeli in the Beethoven Emperor and Schumann Piano Concertos (Sweden, 1967 and 1969) on Arkadia 592 (but not a swollen Munich 1992 version of the Schumann on Artists Live 027); and Barenboim in the Tchaikovsky Concerto # 1 (with the Symphonies 5 and 6) (Munich 1982-1990) on Artists Live 022/23 and the Brahms Concerto # 1 (Munich 1987) on Artists Live 048.
For choice performances of the standard symphonic repertoire, go for Schuberts Symphonies 5 and 8 (Turin 1970) on Cetra 2014 (but the sound is over-processed); Beethovens Eroica (Stuttgart 1971) on Artists Live 001; the complete Brahms Symphonies (Milan 1959) on Arkadia 764.3; the Schumann Symphonies (Milan 1968; London 1908; Munich 1985-6) on Artists Live 009-10; a delightful Dvorak Symphony # 7 (Munich 1987) on Artists Live 040; the Dvorak "New World" Symphony (Turin 1962) on Arkadia 526; and a brooding Franck Symphony in d (Stuttgart 1982) on Artists Live 034.
As for other orchestral showcases, theres a fine collection of Romeo and Juliet by Berlioz, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky (Turin 1960) on Fonit Cetra 2013; the Strauss Death and Transfiguration (Turin 1970) on Cetra 2012; and a Ravel collection (Turin 1959, Naples 1957, Milan 1960/1966 and Viernes 1962) on Arkadia 741.
And finally, let's not forget where it all began — Music and Arts has a four-CD set (priced as 3) of Celi's earliest broadcasts with the Berlin Philharmonic, mostly from 1945 and 1946. Perhaps out of respect for his mentor and the orchestra he just inherited, the standard German pieces (a Beethoven Leonore Overture # 3, a Brahms Symphony # 4, a Strauss Till Eulenspiegel and a Haydn Symphony # 94) are all decent enough but barely remarkable. But when Celi applied Furtwangler's huge emotionalism to a variety of other repertoire, the result is an intriguing hint not only at the leisurely pacing to come but also of a wild cutting-edge excitement that Celi would eventually purge from his interpretive arsenal. While a 25 minute Romeo and Juliet Overture seems merely slow and the end tentative, without the transcendence Celi would achieve with this piece decades later, a 25 minute La Mer is superb – sharp, richly detailed and deeply characterful (and quite thrilling as Celi shouts along with the first-movement climax and whips the second movement into frenzied overdrive). A Dvorak Cello Concerto with Tibor de Machula, despite gargly distortion and some rough horn and solo playing, is impassioned throughout, Britten's Sinfonia de Requiem is powerfully grim, Busoni's Berceuse elegiaque dwells in hushed mystery, the second suite from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is deeply atmospheric and of a symphonic texture, Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony unfolds patiently and gleams with conviction, and Gliere's Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra is simply ravishing and a winning showcase for Erna Berger. Above all else, the set serves to display a conductor willing and eager to follow his own bold muse in less familiar repertoire. (Some relative rarities by Berwald, Tiessen and Rosenberg are provided in the Celibidache volume of EMI's Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century series, which I've reviewed here.)
If youd like a brief biographical review of Celis career before the Munich Philharmonic years, I would refer you to Sergiu Celibidache Conducts - The Italian Bootlegs. And while youre at it, I vented my grievances over the needlessly shoddy engineering of many of the Celi dupes in Sergiu Celibidache vs. The Engineers.
I also want to recommend a fabulous resource on the Internet a massive list of all Celi performances compiled by Tatsuro Ouchi of Japan at www.wizvax.net/akira/celi/performances/index.html. (You can download a list of all Celi CDs by searching for "CD.") Sure, its more than any but the most fanatic Celi fan would ever need, but somehow just knowing that such an incredible list is there helps to put my own enthusiasm into perspective.
May 2005 Update:
Eleven new "official" EMI volumes
Since 1999, my wait for more EMI volumes turned to frustration – after only a single further disc of the Schumann and Tchaikovski piano concerti with Barenboim, the series halted and seemed destined for the fate of most other ambitious classical projects nowadays. Then, suddenly, 11 new volumes appeared (at least in Europe) that mostly continue the trend of fascinating, quirky excellence. Having had the undesired luxury of a half-decade to reflect some more on Celi's approach and its impact on familiar repertoire, I'll share my reactions to the new ones more extensively, while still hoping for yet more.
Clocking in at a good 20 minutes longer than the norm, the Verdi is by far the slowest version on record. In Celi's patient hands, the work emerges as reverential and spiritual but utterly drained of its fundamental operatic drama. As with nearly all of his work, while hardly idiomatic, it refocuses our conception, here away from contrast and sudden mood changes to an overriding sense of overall structural continuity. As throughout all these releases, the orchestral playing is consistently superb – consider the careful layering of the brass at the beginning of the "Tuba mirum." The precision and cohesion of the Munich Philharmonic Chorus is astounding – witness their powerful rolled "r"s at the opening of "Rex tremendae" and the exaggerated sibilance in "Dies irae." Curiously, despite Celi's professed antipathy both to text and to the recording studio, the "mix" constantly favors the soloists, who sing boldly with wide vibrato, evoking control-room manipulation of the balance, although presumably we hear the concert-hall sound the conductor carefully crafted.
As if in anticipation of a need to justify a Mozart Requiem lasting nearly 67 minutes, the notes (by Patrick Lang) explain Celi's defense of slow tempos as required to absorb the essence of a rich, variegated work; consequently, recordings always seem too slow, since they can't convey all the tonal phenomena of a live performance. Fair enough. But is the work to which Mozart devoted his final days really all that complex a work, or rather a sincere and relatively straight-forward expression of faith, an earnest summation of his aesthetic, refined and accentuated by the bizarre circumstances of its commission and the composer's inability to complete it? In any event, as with the Verdi, this account weighs in as by far the slowest on record. The relative timings of the movements remain fairly constant with his 56-minute 1962 Milan (Arkadia) and 63-minute 1987 Munich (Artists Live) concerts, but the added gravitas invests this final 1995 performance with a spiritual beauty in which time seems more suspended than a tangible factor.
The Bach, in contrast, severely confounds expectations, running nearly ten minutes faster than typical modern instrument versions. Textures are luminous, vibrato minimal and harpsichord and soloists pushed well back into the resonant acoustic. The slow opening "Kyrie eleison" is one of hushed awe rather than powerful majesty, an invitation to prayerful meditation rather than a statement of faith. But then a crisp "Christe eleison" ushers in the rest of the performance, which emerges as an abstraction apart from the intensely human expressive suggestions of the text. Overall, the feeling is far closer to historically-informed performances than to those of Celi's generation. [Confession: I haven't bought the EMI volume, as it appears to be identical as to date, timing and soloists to my boot on Exclusive 33/34, whose sound is credible enough and upon which these comments are based.]
Of all these works, and indeed of all Requiems, Faure's seems ideally suited to Celibidache's temperament and outlook. Shorn by the composer of all dramatic episodes (and lacking a "Dies irae" altogether), this is an utterly gentle, peaceful, tender and comforting work; as one commentator said, it's all heaven and no hell. Although the timings are nearly the same, EMI's 1994 Munich version boasts far greater clarity than the 1982 London version on Exclusive, whose dark and blurry sound seems to fight Celi's gleaming conception. The EMI disc is shared by the austere, ritualistic and impersonal Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, a striking contrast to the warm and flowing Faure. Celi's careful, beautifully balanced performance and objectivity ennobles the piece with a vitality and life-force that seems to emerge from within, all the while upholding the composer's scathing view of those who would dare to interpret his work, .
Among all the fine qualities often attibuted to Celibidache by his many admirers, sensuality surely isn't among them. Yet, his performance of Scheherazade heard here is deeply erotic in its patient subtlety and fascination. Taken much more deliberately than any other reading on record (including his own 1967 Torino concert on Arkadia), Celi barely hints at the score's powerful surging emotions and instead crafts a breathtakingly lovely and thoroughly beguiling image of intangible and rarified thoughts – entirely appropriate, of course, to the work's tale that depicts a seductive dream-state. With all due respect to Celi's disparagement of recordings, this is one of those performances that practically demands the intimacy of listening at home. Although Scheherazade alone on a CD seems rather stingy, I really can't imagine another work I would want to hear either before or after this astounding reading, lest Celi's wondrous spell of enchantment be broken – except, perhaps, Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, with which Celi's langorous London performance this very same take of Scheherazade is paired on Exclusive 82. (EMI's sound is only marginally superior, with less tape hiss and slightly more open climaxes.)
While his 17-minute ďClassicalĒ Symphony is far slower than any other, the individual timings are significant – as the work progresses, Celiís tempos increasingly approach the norm, with a finale only slightly more deliberate than weíre accustomed. In the process, he foregoes the workís usual sweet, playful charm for a different kind of "classical" grace, serious yet light, and suffused with nobility. In the process he conjures inner voices and intricate rhythms that emerge with both extraordinary delicacy and convincing power. The Larghetto, especially, gleams with a wondrous blend of gravity and wistfulness as in no other version. The notes (by David Gutman – no relation) claim that Celiís conception of the Fifth was unprecedented in its spaciousness, but thatís not true – Bernsteinís 1966 NY Philharmonic recording has nearly identical timings, both overall and for the third and fourth movements. (In the first, heís nearly two minutes longer, but makes it up in a brisk Allegro marcato.) What does emerge as nearly unique, though, is the sheer sound of this 1990 concert – rather than blend the instrumental choirs and soloists into a richly integrated whole, Celi varies the texture, especially with uncharacteristic (for him) biting brass, growling basses and prominent tympani that dominate the sound at key points. While transitions are continuous and smooth, Celi creates a kaleidoscope of shifting colors that we donít often associate with Prokofiev.
The only record that even comes to close to Celi's 54 minutes for the Tchaikovsky Fourth is Bernstein's 1989 New York Philharmonic concert on DG (but it's barely 49 minutes long). While Bernstein's reading is awash in huge tempo emphases, Celi tried to steer a middle course between what he viewed as inappropriate sentimentality and equally inappropriate insensitive "modern" objectivity. While I grumbled at the seeming waste of a second disc for nothing more than yet another Nutcracker Suite, it winds up stealing the show. If you're the type who instinctively taps your toes at the mere thought of ballet music, this won't do. But if, like me, you cringe at the prospect of admitting to a love of Tchaikovsky, for fear of being branded a cultural cretin by sophisticates, Celi's astounding half-hour odyssey through the standard 21-minute suite will enthrall you with renewed apprciation for the glory of the effortless melody, the splendor of the orchestration, and the overall grandeur of the conception. No, you can't dance to it, but you just might fall in love with the Nutcracker all over again and perhaps in the process recall how many children were drawn to great music through its timeless magic.
According to the notes by his student Claudio Maria Perselli, Celibidache prefessed contempt for opera, convinced that its text and explicit emotions blocked musical transcendence. By muting their dramatic content and expanding their scale, Celi effectively divorces these overtures from their intended purpose and transmutes them into abstract, free-standing essays akin to tone poems merely inspired by, rather than directly tied to, narrative sources. But perhaps that's only fair – why expect to get "drawn in" to an opera when you're not going to experience it anyway once the overture concludes? And yet, these weren't written as Stokowskian "syntheses" but as prologues to an art in which drama often dominates, or at least is an equal partner with the music. In any event, Celi's glacial pace (a 14-minute William Tell) and attenuation of the emotional content (you'd never guess that the central episode of the William Tell Overture was a storm rather than loud and persistent rhythmic music) creates an overriding sense of structural cohesion that isolates our attention to the overture itself.
Even though four of the works here were conceived as free-standing pieces, rather than as prologues to operas (and, despite the title of this collection, the Smetana isnít even an overture), they still carry specific associations which Celiís steady tone and integrated approach resolutely ignores. All are played with great precision, but their severe tempos, smooth dynamics and heavy textures belie most thoughts beyond abstract music. Thus, despite masterfully-built climaxes, The Hebrides dwells in melancholy and sidesteps the 20-year old composerís mixture of fascination and fear of discovering natureís power and whim. The Midsummer Nightís Dream is all earth-bound rather than mediating a delicate balance between mortals and heaven. Vltava presents a sustained reflective mood rather than a tour of a vibrant nation (although a quirky rhythmic kink in the peasant dance episode presumably depicts the revelersí drunken state). The Strauss begins and ends in a burst of energy but otherwise is largely shorn of the buoyant touch and Viennese lilt Celi incorporated into his 1970 Danish (EMI) and 1973 French (Artists Live) readings. Only the Berlioz is spared, its pomp redeemed by startling percussive outbursts. The Schubert, though, is quite poignant, not only from the heaving swells of its leisurely introduction and Celiís realization of the dignity and fundamental gravity that informs all of Schubertís ostensibly youthful mature work, but because it comes from the very last concert he gave, in June 1996, a mere two months before his death, when perhaps he was consumed with especially profound thoughts.
As with the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, the closest timing comparisons are with the late Bernstein concerts on DG. In the First Symphony, a student piece, Bernstein seems to better grasp the youngster's bravura outburst better than Celi's more sober, matter-of-fact reading. But in the Ninth I find Celibidache's approach to be more respectful of the composer's intentions. As with his famous 1959 Fifth with which he dazzled Russian audiences on tour, Bernstein's account is full of vivid, pointed accents, spotlighting the solo instruments as they shift within the dynamic texture, with a spooky second movement and a genuinely thrilling finale. Admittedly, this was the work with which Shostakovich emerged from the gloom of his wartime symphonies with a new, lighter style. Yet, as we have come to realize belatedly, the composer intended many of his superficially bright and simplified works to suggest dutiful support of socialist ideals while containing hidden messages of rebellion. Celi's reticence seems a better blend of sarcasm, dry wit and deceptive simplicity – his first movement comes to life only at the end, too late to dispell the dispassion of the rest, and his finale is hesitant, muting the joy and mischevious sense conjured by Bernstein. Celi's approach to the Barber is simple and direct, closer in its light texture and gently flowing tone to the original Quartet movement from which it was orchestrated than the blatant passion so often stirred by others. It's a spiritual meditation, a wordless blend of muted sorrow and bittersweet hope that goes to the very core of the human experience.
I bought this volume out of sheer curiosity, wondering why the producers had sqandered a disc on a collection of such seemingly trivial stuff when so many masterpieces under Celibidache's wondrous hands remained unissued. Now, after having heard it a half-dozen times, I'm still not sure. The Concerto presents some unusual sonorities and its central movement is sweetly atmospheric, but Celi's heavy hand in the rest seems at odds with their basically light, breezy nature. The Suite francaise in particular seems more suitable for background sound (or perhaps incidental movie music) than sustained listening. Presumably the purpose was to document the less pensive side of Celi's artistic personality, but I'm not sure that this program proves the point, as the humor and playfulness touted in the notes by his student Christoph Schluren emerge only rarely from beneath a blanket of sober and occasionally bombastic music-making. Indeed, Schluren insists that Celi established a reputation as a French specialist but denigates the sound quality of his recorded historical concerts. His Debussy (in an earlier volume of this Edition) and several Ravel bootlegs are indeed wonderful, so why didn't the producers seize this opportunity to remedy the perceived shortfall with more "official" releases of prime French repertoire? Overall, this volume strikes me as having little more than curiosity value, and of only passing interest for even that minor purpose.
Copyright 1999, 2003, 2005 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2005 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.