Sergiu Celibidache (photo EMI)Sergiu Celibidache (photo EMI)

(Recording information appears at the bottom of this article)

As is well known, my father refused to record his [sic] music, believing that the sound can only be “lived”, “experienced” in real space.’ So writes Sergiu Celibidache’s son Ioan at the start of each booklet for the individual releases in the latest 14-CD instalment of EMI’s Sergiu Celibidache Edition, which is newly available either as separate discs or as a boxed set. Put briefly, and ‘despite all’, mother and son have authorised this edition even though ‘CD can slowly kill one’s spontaneity. It slowly reduces the opportunity to participate in the event…it gradually installs a dangerous mechanicity,’ and so on. Ioan then explains the importance of what he terms ‘epiphenomena’ (sounds appearing from the division of the main notes), namely that notes need time to breathe. ‘The richer the music’ we’re told, ‘…the slower the tempo.’ And of course no mere recording can hope to capture this seething mass of ‘epiphenomena’.


These esoteric ideas, plus the use of the Chinese ‘shou’ symbol for longevity (Celibidache was strongly influenced by Zen) and the process of having dutifully to endure tracked bouts of applause – when they could easily have been excised – establish a weird sense of ritual. But was it necessary? And, more to the point, is it useful? Surely the repeated intrusion of applause only goes to underline that we are actually listening to ‘mechanical reproduction’ and that we’re not physically ‘in situ’. Under normal circumstances, once into the music any really attentive listener loses the sensation of non-musical space and time and engages instead with the composer and performer. Also the idea of meditation so closely associated with Zen doesn’t always square with the confrontational, restless, troubled, angst-ridden nature of so much symphonic music, hence the fact that some of Celibidache’s later performances sound oddly analytical and bereft of energy.


All these recordings date from the last phase in Celibidache’s career, when he was chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. First ‘official’ versions of important choral works (with the Munich Philharmonic Choir) are likely to prove of particular interest. A coupling of Fauré’s Requiem (1994, with a radiant Margaret Price and a somewhat unsteady Alan Titus) and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1984) is patient and mostly transparent, the Fauré achieving a certain sombre serenity, the animated centre of Stravinsky’s ‘Alleluia’ both sonorous and dramatic. Mozart’s Requiem (1995, Caroline Petrig, Christel Borchers, Peter Straka and Matthias Hölle) benefits from the relative breadth and weight of Celibidache’s approach where, principally because of leisurely tempi, most contrapuntal lines retain their independence even during the heaviest passages. Bach’s B minor Mass (1990, with soloists that include Barbara Bonney and Peter Schreier) enjoys a workable combination of majestic pacing and reduced performing forces, with an appealing glow to the sky-bound phrases of the Sanctus and an opening Kyrie that unfolds with quiet inevitability. Only Verdi’s Requiem (1993, Elena Filipova, Reinhild Runkel, Peter Dvorsk´y and Kurt Rydl) seems to me essentially misconceived, but then according to the booklet Celibidache himself had doubts about the work’s spiritual content; he was also distrustful of what are termed ‘superficial effects’. The opening ‘Requiem aeternam’ has precious little sense of line, the ‘Dies irae’ is powerful but cool, the rest often beautiful (especially where a cappella forces are called for) but with no obvious emotional engagement. Then again, it would be difficult to find a less ‘Zen-like’ Requiem Mass than Verdi’s.


The symphonic performances are often impressive. By far the worst is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth from 1993 where, after imposingly stated opening fanfares and an aching first statement of the principal theme, Celibidache indulges in an awkward sequence of speed-changes that unlike, say, Willem Mengelberg’s, have no discernible symphonic logic. Dynamics are tweaked and the overall impression is of exhausted excitability, playing to the gallery in a way that you would have thought was profoundly at odds with this conductor’s elevated performing philosophy. The Andantino second movement plays for a lamentably distended 13'05", the Scherzo quite loses its balalaika ‘tang’ and only the finale partially regains ground by virtue of its steadiness and muscular projection. The coupling – on two CDs, you’ll note – is a fitfully interesting but conspicuously glitter-free Nutcracker Suite (not a patch on Celibidache’s LPO version). Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on the other hand (1984) is given a superb performance, with a fine swell to ‘The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship’ and breathtaking intensity at the quiet close of ‘The Story of the Kalendar Prince’. The shipwreck sequence is panoramic, the overall control and focusing if anything even finer than on Celibidache’s Stuttgart recording (DG). By contrast the Stuttgart account of Prokofiev’s Fifth is rather more taut and propulsive than EMI’s 1990 Munich alternative, though the colossal statement of the first movement’s gong-capped coda has, in this Munich performance, a breadth and visceral impact that upstages even Karajan’s DG recording. That said, some tempi here are just a tad too slow. The coupling is a mostly leaden and at times mannered Classical Symphony (1985).


I had never previously heard Celibidache conduct Shostakovich’s First Symphony, which made the Munich broadcast from 1994 a particular pleasure. Tempi are generally well chosen, the symphony a veritable box of tricks, each gesture parading in its turn and with plenty of time for the symphonic context to register. The Ninth (1990) is already available in two previous versions with this conductor (from Stuttgart and Berlin) but the Munich account is the best yet. It’s certainly the most droll, the first movement’s two-note trombone motive dryly insistent, the finale harbouring an added touch of malice. Darius Milhaud’s Concerto for marimba, vibraphone and orchestra (1992, with Peter Sadlo, soloist), an attractive piece, benefits from a superlative recorded balance, the solo vibraphone almost tangible in its clarity and presence, though Celibidache sounds less than at home in the first movement’s snappy arguments. Milhaud’s Suite française is given an affable, carefully gauged reading and so are the two busy Roussel Suites, Opp 33 and 39.


The remaining three discs are devoted mostly to overtures and orchestral operatic excerpts. The ‘bonus’ CD (available only as part of the box set) opens with the trance-like magic of Weber’s Oberon Overture (1985), superbly sustained, though the main body of the piece is a little under-powered. Music from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1983, Prelude and Liebestod) and Parsifal (1993, Good Friday Music) is given typically expansive treatment. The meditative centre of the Parsifal extract is pure magic, whereas Smetana’s ‘Vltava’ – also in ‘Overtures’ – features wooden dancing peasants and a hugely spacious moonlit glade, bewitching in its effect but definitely not for everyday listening. The overtures are by Mendelssohn (Hebrides, Midsummer Night’s Dream), Berlioz (Roman Carnival), Schubert (Rosamunde) and Strauss (a sparkling Die Fledermaus). All subscribe to the by-now familiar ‘late’ Celibidache aesthetic of soft-core attack, slow breathing, luminosity and interconnected phrasing. As to ‘Italian Opera Overtures’, the sheer warmth of the opening of Rossini’s William Tell is enough to seduce anyone, though the tub-thumping storm lingers overlong and the closing gallop is more stately than exhilarating. Other Rossini (Semiramide, La scala di seta, La gazza ladra), Mozart (Don Giovanni) and, especially, Verdi (La forza del destino) are memorable in that they reveal details, patterns and sequences that others in their haste tend to cloud over, though as ever the pulse rate tends to be slow.

The Recordings


Sacred Music and Opera Celibidache (EMI 085617-2) Buy from Amazon


Mozart Celibidache (EMI 557847-2) Buy from Amazon


Bach Celibidache (EMI 557844-2) Buy from Amazon


Verdi Celibidache (EMI 557848-2) Buy from Amazon


Tchaikovsky Celibidache (EMI 557852-2) Buy from Amazon


Rimsky-Korsakov Celibidache (EMI 557853-2) Buy from Amazon


French and Russian music Celibidache (EMI 085606-2) Buy from Amazon


Shostakovich Celibidache (EMI 557855-2) Buy from Amazon


'Overtures' Celibidache (EMI 557582-4) Buy from Amazon

'Italian Opera Overtures' Celibidache (EMI 557857-2) Buy from Amazon

‘Celibidache: Münchner Philharmoniker’ EMI 557861-2 (includes above + bonus disc) Buy from Amazon

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