I am now on the final stretch of accounting for the 48-CD anthology of concert recordings that Sergiu Celibidache made with the Munich Philharmonic for EMI. The last box remaining for me to examine (which is actually the third in the EMI release order) is entitled French & Russian Music. Given this label, I feel it important to begin with the observation that some of the most memorable performances in this collection are by two composers that are neither French nor Russian and that one of them does not even have his name listed on the cover of the box.
That most neglected composer is the American, Samuel Barber. True, his Opus 11 “Adagio for Strings” accounts for less than ten minutes out of the full 11-CD set; but it is notable that this is the only Celibidache recording of a work by an American-born composer. It is also a stunning interpretation of a piece that has fallen victim to far too many hackneyed readings. Indeed, I have long preferred the transparency of the string quartet version to that of a string ensemble, which, at its best, still borders on the melodramatic. (At its worst the climax sounds like a bunch of cats yowling at the prospect of being turned into violin strings.)
Well, there is nothing melodramatic about Celibidache’s reading. This conductor is such a stickler for precision that he can make the Munich string section sound pretty much as transparent as a string quartet. Furthermore, his phrasing of Barber’s broadly extended lines is informed by that same capacity for breadth that makes his approach to the symphonies of Anton Bruckner so compelling. It is hard to imagine any other conductor making such a convincing case in favor of the orchestral version over the string quartet.
The other composer who is neither French nor Russian is Béla Bartók. The final CD in the box is a performance of his “Concerto for Orchestra,” followed by six excerpts of rehearsals of the first, third, and fourth movements. To be fair, I have long treasured the recording that Fritz Reiner made in 1955 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; but this was made under studio conditions by an RCA team throwing all available technology at what their record labels boasted was “Living Stereo.” The Celibidache recording, on the other hand, was recorded in concert (like all of the other recordings in the set).
There is also that recurring issue of Celibidache’s slower tempos. Reiner was one of Bartók’s greatest champions (at least during that composer’s life). Bartók was very precise is specifying timings, and Reiner had no intention of violating the master’s wishes. Celibidache, on the other hand, was more worried about how much music might be lost due to the limitations of recording technology. Eckhardt van den Hoogen’s booklet essay for French & Russian Music (translated into English by Richard Evidon) even has a Celibidache quote (presumably originally in German) that addresses this point:
My tempi…when I listen to them on the recording seem too slow by a third. Why? Because the microphone cannot pick up a third of it.
Thus, however much I shall continue to enjoy my Reiner recording, I have to confess that I am definitely more aware of all the details on Bartók’s score pages when I listen to this Celibidache performance.
I would also like to suggest that, even though Bartók was Hungarian, this particular composition has both French and Russian references. The Russian connection is the one that tends to receive more attention. It is the story of Bartók lying on a hospital bed listening to a radio broadcast of Arturo Toscanini conducting the American premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh (“Leningrad”) symphony. Bartók was very put off by the first movement, the bulk of which repeats a rather simple march theme, building a gradual crescendo over its four-square iterations, very much in the spirit of Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro.” This theme so aggravated Bartók that he decided to satirize it by extracting its six-step scale descent and recasting it in a far jauntier setting that sounds for all the world like a quote from the “Going to Maxim’s” song from Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow. This constitutes the “interruption” in his fourth, Intermezzo interrotto, movement.
However, there may also be another Russian reference, far less satirical. The movement has three themes, the third of which is the “interruption.” The second has a rather schmaltzy quality; and one of my professors used to call it “the Gershwin theme.” Under Celibidache’s baton, however, this theme emerges as a reflection on the song-like qualities of Russia’s best-known composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Many of Tchaikovsky’s songs shimmer with a folk-like quality considered through the lens of art song; and, in one of the rehearsal excerpts, one can clearly hear the noun “Volkston” as Celibidache describes to the orchestra the effect he wishes to achieve.
The “French connection” on the other hand arises in the second movement and may well have emerged from that Shostakovich symphony reminding Bartók of “Boléro.” As in “Boléro” the theme migrates through different instruments, just not with the same rigid repetition. The real kicker, however, is that the movement opens with beats tapped out by a solo drum. The rhythmic pattern is different; but the association with “Boléro” is hard to ignore. This movement also provides an excellent glimpse of Celibidache at his most meticulous, since he gives this introduction as much attention in properly shaping the phrase has he gives to any melodic line.
Having said all of that, it should come as no surprise that the recording of “Boléro” is one of the most impressive of the French offerings in this collection. (Sadly, it is also the only one composed by Ravel, although Ravel is also present in the orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.) Indeed, it is a textbook example of how a seemingly trivial idea can become compelling under the baton of a conductor with a keen sense of subtleties. That attention to the expressive detail in small things also results in a particularly effective reading of Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.”
The small also fares well on the Russian side of this offering. While there may be an emphasis of the last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky, the most stunning performance is that of the all-too-familiar Opus 71a suite from the Nutcracker ballet. Whatever one may say about Celibidache’s approach to tempo, all of the movements following the overture are conducted with the sensibility of the skilled ballet dancer in mind. One thus has a performance in which clarity of rhythm is paramount but which comes across with gossamer delicacy. I had previously written that Celibidache can take the most familiar music and leave you with the impression that you are hearing it for the first time, and that is precisely what he did with this particular Tchaikovsky favorite.
Russia is also represented by both Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. There are two Shostakovich symphonies, Opus 10 in F minor (the first) and Opus 70 (the ninth), both of which are rare instances of this composer in a lighter mood. Celibidache approaches them both with the necessary lightness of touch and even with the occasional lapse into prankishness. That lightness does not come across quite so well in Prokofiev’s Opus 25 in D major (“Classical”); but Celibidache is very much in a comfort zone when he takes on the fifth (Opus 100 in B-flat major). This is another “famous fifth” symphony; and Celibidache’s reading makes it clear why it has earned this reputation.
Thus endeth the “lesson” of EMI’s Celibidache anthology. This is a major asset for anyone interested in just what the art of conducting can achieve. Happy listening to all (and to all a good night)!