The minor flaw in the Sacred Music & Opera box of 11 CDs in the EMI anthology of recordings of concert performances of the Munich Philharmonic conducted by Sergiu Celibidache is the impression left by the title that most of the selections will be vocal. This is certainly true of the sacred music portion, which covers the rather significant span of time from the eighteenth century of Johann Sebastian Bach to the twentieth century of Igor Stravinsky. However, none of the opera selections are vocal. Most are overtures, not all of which are operatic (such as the two Mendelssohn selections, the Opus 21 for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Opus 26 “Die Hebriden,” not to mention Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau,” which is not even an overture). There is also about 90 minutes of orchestra-only Richard Wagner.
Regardless of the box title, however, this is an impressive collection for a variety of reasons, some of which may again reflect on Celibidache’s admiration for Wilhelm Furtwängler. Readers may recall that, when I reviewed the Beethoven portion of Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Great EMI Recordings, one of my greatest surprises was what I called the “throbbing vitality” of his interpretation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 72 Fidelio opera. I confessed that I never thought particularly highly of that opera but that Furtwängler’s recording persuaded me to think better of it.
This kind of lightning struck again with the Celibidache recording of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. Too many conductors approach this music as if it were just another Verdi opera that happens to lack any staged action; and, as a corollary, such conductors tend to allow (if not encourage) hyper-dramatized emoting from the soloists that just does not play very well in a concert setting. Celibidache, on the other hand, takes the score as sacred music with nineteenth-century rhetoric with no need for overplaying any excesses of romanticism. Thus all four soloists (soprano Elena Filipova, mezzo Reinhild Runkel, tenor Peter Dvorsky, and bass Kurt Rydl) are all kept at a safe distance from any overacting; and the result is a Verdi interpretation that is often more expressive than even his best operas. The same can be said for Celibidache’s control of the choral forces of the orchestra’s Philharmonic Choir. This yields an overall balance that never aggravates the ear by flirting with (or succeeding in) going over the top, all played out at a pace that never lets any individual movement feel excessively tedious.
Ironically, the same may be said of Celibidache’s approach to Bach’s BWV 232 mass setting in B minor. That, of course, again includes a rhetorical stance more consistent with the nineteenth century than with Bach’s own period. However, while Furtwängler’s nineteenth-century rhetoric for Bach’s BWV 244 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel of Saint Matthew (included in Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Legacy) tends to hang a bit too heavy with solemnity, Celibidache seems concerned only with finding just the right tempos to reveal the full clarity of the rich counterpoint in every movement of BWV 232. That clarity is further enhanced by his working with the Munich Bach Choir and an excellent gathering of soloists: soprano Barbara Bonney, mezzos Danila Donose and Maria Ruxandra, alto Cornelia Wulkopf, tenor Peter Schreier, and bass Yaron Windmüller.
Nevertheless, just as Johannes Brahms was the high point of the Symphonies box, his Opus 45 Ein deutsches Requiem is definitely the must-hear sacred music selection. In this case the chorus involves the combined resources of the Philharmonic Choir and the Bach Choir. They blend excellently and, of course, have to carry the burden of most of the score. There are only a few solo sections (sung by soprano Arleen Augér and baritone Franz Gerihsen), which also fit into Celibidache’s conception of the overall score; but this is music to be enjoyed for its rich ensemble sound. (It also makes for a striking contrast with the equally rich sonorities of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.”)
On the operatic side the high point is definitely the extended attention given to Wagner. Here, again, we encounter Celibidache adjusting tempo to the limitations of the recording technology. He wants to make sure that the home listener can grasp the many details in Wagner’s scores as well as anyone sitting in the audience of the performance itself. This is vital where content-rich selections are concerned, such as the funeral march for Siegfried in Götterdämmerung and the opening prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, both of which provide an extensive thematic account of their respective operas. This is Wagner without excessive studio manipulation, and it is stunning. It is enough to make one wish that some concert performances of vocal Wagner selections had been part of the collection.