Classical Notes

Sergiu Celibidache Conducts: The Italian Bootlegs

Bach: Mass in b minor (1).
         Exclusive 33/34.

Bruckner: Mass # 3 in f minor; Hindemith: Mathis der Maler (1).
         Exclusive 37/38.

Bruckner: Symphony # 3 (2)
         Exclusive 59.

Bruckner: Symphony # 4 (2); Symphony # 9 (1).
         Exclusive 23/24.

Debussy: La Mer; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Iberia (3).
         Artists Live FED 031.

Franck: Symphony in d (2); Respighi: Pines of Rome (4).
         Artists Live FED 034.

Moussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (1).
         Artists Live FED 017.

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies # 4 and 5; Piano Concerto # 1. (1, with Daniel Barenboim, pianist).
         Artists Live FED 022/023.

Wagner: "Die Meistersinger" Overture; "Tannhauser" Overture; "Tristan und Isolde:" Prelude and Liebestod; Parsifal: Good Friday Spell (1).
         Artists Live FED 026.

Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (1); Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (2); London Symphony Orchestra (3); Orchestre Nationale de l'ORTF (4).

The name Sergiu Celibidache brings two questions to mind: who the heck is he and how do you pronounce it?treble clef graphic As with most everything else about Celibidache, the answer to neither question commands an absolute consensus. His bizarre habits and refusal to make recordings have stoked a myth of legendary proportions. Many vaunt him as a genius but others condemn him as a charlatan. Perhaps the one certainty is that he is the most controversial figure on the classical scene today.

The beginning of Celibidache's career is the stuff of which dreams are made. Following Germany's defeat, the unknown music student was catapulted to the helm of the second finest orchestra in Europe; he had just won a contest to lead a radio ensemble when the temporary conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic was killed and Celibidache was promoted to its helm. He remained with the orchestra even after its permanent conductor, the legendary Wilhelm Furtwangler, was finally absolved of collaboration in 1947 and resumed his career. Although Celibidache apparently refuses to discuss his years with Furtwangler, early concert recordings show that he clearly absorbed Furtwangler's mystical passion and icolonoclasm.

Following Furtwangler's death in 1954 and replacement by Herbert von Karajan, Celibidache permanently severed his relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic and began a 30-year odyssey. His period as a musical wanderer was assured by his professional and personal eccentricities. His demands for enormous amounts of rehearsal time vastly exceeded the resources of commercial orchestras, and so his activities centered upon heavily-subsidized European radio ensembles.Celibidache conducts the Mozart Requiem His methods were abrasive and insulting, reportedly calculating his fee according to the ineptness of the musicians he would have to tolerate. He considers records to be obscene and after two 1948 Tchaikovsky sessions has refused to set foot in a recording studio (although lately he has become enamored of videos).

An earlier series of 1960s concerts on the Italian Arkadia and Hunt CD labels were frustratingly uneven, but among the dross were enough truly exceptional performances to suggest that Celibidache's unorthodoxy could produce some fine artistic results. The rarefied playing proved that thorough rehearsal could impel a provincial ensemble to perform with amazing big-league polish, subtlety and assurance. And by solving performance problems in extensive rehearsals, Celibidache was freed during actual performances to craft wayward interpretations that confounded audience expectations and delighted listeners bored with mainstream approaches to familiar repertoire.

But even nomads long for a home, and in the 1980s Celibidache gravitated toward the Munich Philharmonic, of which he ultimately became the permanent conductor. The association aroused great expectations: after all, if Celibidache could occasionally stimulate mediocre ensembles to shine, what miracles could he achieve through continuous leadership of a world-class orchestra? The answer is now on hand, thanks to two import CD series on Artists Live (distributed by Allegro) and Exclusive (distributed by Koch).

Consistent with the reputation of their subject, the presentation of both labels evokes mystery and summons fond memories of pirate LPs. There are no booklets as such, and the insert cards are nearly bare, giving only the composer, work, orchestra, concert location and date. The discs themselves add only a copyright notice. Artwork is minimal and, in the case of Artists Live, downright ugly. But both editions sell for several dollars less than standard classical imports, and that's a fair trade-off since most buyers of such obscure stuff already know more than typical liner notes would convey.

Both series document Celibidache's work with the Stuttgart Radio (SDR) Orchestra in the early 1980s and the Munich Philharmonic in more recent years. Both orchestras play far above their slight reputations. The differences between the playing of the two ensembles is surprisingly small, although the Munich sound is slightly smoother and more subtly nuanced.

It seems a shame that Celibidache took so long to alight upon a single orchestra. He is now in his eighties and undoubtedly lacks the years of focussed energy required to mold an orchestra to the point where it is uniquely responsive to his special interpretive desires, comparable to the miracles of unanimity born of decades of work that is heard in the old recordings of Mengelberg with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Furtwangler with the Berlin Philharmonic or Ansermet with the Suisse Romande. Celibidache's age also suggests that his life-long abhorrence of audio recordings is unlikely to soften. Therefore, he must be judged by the quality of his concert tapings.

The discs listed above are the cream of the latest crop. Of those, the Bruckners are especially fine. Most conductors regard Bruckner's sprawling structures as highly dramatic juxtapositions of climaxes and repose. Celibidache, though, blends the peaks and valleys into a continuous emotional flow, deliberately holding back on summits and refusing to let the calm passages flag. He achieves this through breathtaking control of his players and an exquisite layering of the instrumental sounds.

The spellbinding effect is abetted by Celibidache's extremely slow tempos. Indeed, every one of these performances is the slowest on record, often by a very substantial margin. Unlike other notoriously "slow" conductors, though, he takes moderate and fast sections at a standard pace and only protracts timings that are already deliberate.Celibidache conducts Bruckner - Exclusive CD Bruckner's music is quite broad to begin with, and under Celibidache's baton is expanded to mesmerizing lengths where time seems suspended. Thus, the Bruckner Symphony # 4 sprawls to 73 minutes (compared to 61 minutes for Otto Klemperer, a "slow" Bruckner specialist of the past) and the Mass # 3 consumes 78 minutes (as compared to a "normal" hour or so).

These qualities are heard to varying degrees in all of the present performances. The Bach is deeply felt and yet stylish. Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun and the slow middle movement of his Iberia are extraordinarily languorous, evocative and atmospheric. The Franck Symphony manages to integrate its disparate sections into a seamless whole more successfully than any other known performance. The Moussorgsky Pictures is taken at an incredibly deliberate 41 minutes, the pace alone converting the normal brisk half-hour tour into a deep meditation. The Tchaikovsky echoes the seething passion of Bernstein's great 1980s concerts (and Daniel Barenboim, himself a great admirer of Furtwangler, is a superbly attuned soloist in the Concerto). The Wagner is perhaps closest to Stokowski's: pure, gorgeous music, unencumbered by any concern for the operatic dramas in which the excerpts were originally embedded; the Meistersinger Prelude, in particular, is astoundingly moving.

Beyond these glories, there are SDR performances of the Beethoven Symphony # 3 (on Artists Live FED 001) and Symphonies #s 5, 6 and 7 (on Exclusive 29/30) and a Munich Symphony # 9 (on Exclusive 15), that are all fine enough but virtual replicas of Furtwangler's monumental final readings. There are also a Dvorak Symphony # 7 (on Artists Live FED 040), a Faure Requiem (on Exclusive 52) and a set of the Schumann Symphonies (on Artists Live FED 009/10) which are excellent but not uniquely insightful. Perhaps the only outright failure is a Schumann Piano Concerto (on Artists Live FED 027, with fellow iconoclast Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli), which comes across as more lumbering than inspired and far less probing than the same artists' 1967 outing on Arkadia CDHP 592.1; the coupling, though, is a ravishing Strauss Four Last Songs with soprano Jessye Norman.

Recording quality is quite good except for the Beethoven Symphony # 9, which sounds like it was forced through a defective dynamic treble control that muffles and badly distorts the soft passages. Audience noise generally is suppressed to an inconspicuous level, although the beginning of the Bruckner Mass is so cough-infested that it has more pathological than musical value. During several performances, Celibidache can be heard verbally exhorting the players toward a climax or making a percussive noise, but unlike Glenn Gould and Pablo Casals, two notorious grunters of the past, Celibidache's unwitting additions to the scores are in exact rhythm, on key and only barely distracting.

Common wisdom is that the unique flame of nineteenth century interpretive freedom was extinguished with the death of Stokowski at the age of 95 in 1977. In Celibidache, though, more than a flicker remains. Although born in 1912, Celibidache's probing insight transcends mere peculiarity to recall an art of the past that is still being created afresh by this bizarre but wonderful musician. Those collectors who properly yawn at the prospect of a well-worn score in yet another routine performance, indistinguishable from dozens of others, can only hope that the stunning Celibidache concerts available to date are but the start of a huge and intriguing schedule of future releases. Whether these readings are definitive or "the best" is entirely beside the point; they are unique and nowadays that in itself makes them irreplaceably valuable.

And so, to answer the first of our two questions: Celibidache is the supreme genius among living conductors. As for the second: the consensus seems to be Chell-ee-bee-DAY-chee. But not everyone seems to agree with that either.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1994 by Peter Gutmann

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