Those who have been following my dispatches on EMI’s 48-CD anthology of concert recordings of Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Munich Philharmonic towards the end of his career know that one of the four boxes released for this project consists entirely of performances of the music of Anton Bruckner. That comes to 12 CDs covering his last seven symphonies (the third through the ninth) and two sacred compositions, the relatively short (by Bruckner standards) Te Deum and the last of his mass settings in F minor. This is a generous amount of attention for a composer who does not receive very much of it these days. Fortunately, from my position as a reviewer, I happen to live in a city that is not neglecting this composer entirely. The San Francisco Symphony has a Conductor Laureate (Herbert Blomstedt) and a frequent guest conductor (Kurt Mazur), both of whom have been responsible for giving this composer the attention he deserves.
It is also worth observing that Wilhelm Furtwängler (previously described as Celibidache’s “beacon”) had his own experiences in recording Bruckner symphonies with both the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic. None of these were included in the EMI anthology; but the more comprehensive Legacy collection has six CDs that cover the fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and ninth symphonies, as well as excerpts from the sixth. There are thus opportunities to establish a context for listening to Celibidache’s interpretations, should one choose to do so.
Most important in approaching Celibidache, however, is his preference for slower tempos. Those who know Bruckner’s symphonies at all tend to think of them in terms of their extended durations. Indeed, one often hears the remark that, even when a Bruckner symphony is shorter in “clock time” than one by Gustav Mahler, it tends to “feel” longer. Since the Celibidache anthology does not include any Mahler, we cannot say anything useful about his Mahler clock time; but it is appropriate to repeat my earlier assertion that the slow pace of Celibidache’s recordings may have been determined by the desire to make sure that the available recording technology would achieve the best possible capture of everything happening in the orchestra.
In the case of the Bruckner symphonies, however, there may have been another motive. Regular readers know that one of my own “beacons” for performances of Mahler symphonies is Pierre Boulez, because of his sensitivity to “climax management” or, as he put it in an interview with James Oestreich of The New York Times, the need “to sort out the climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out.” Celibidache clearly appreciates the need to take this same approach to Bruckner, particularly because, while Mahler’s symphonies are almost always roiling with no end of dramatistic connotations, Bruckner’s symphonies are far more abstract. One might say that, while there is a narrative latent in every Mahler symphony, every Bruckner symphony amounts to a well-conceived but highly panoramic landscape. This makes it even more critical that, where climaxes are concerned, the “real ones” really do “stand out.” One can see Celibidache’s sensitivity to this matter in the photograph selected for the cover of the Bruckner box (see the image at the left), where he seems to be holding back his ensemble until just the right moment of climax arrives.
When it arrives, there is no mistaking its presence. This is particularly true as the long movements keep getting longer in the later symphonies. My favorite personal example is the third (Adagio) movement of the eighth symphony in C minor, which takes slightly more than 35 minutes on the recording. That comes down to about half an hour of keeping everything under restraint until the full force of the ensemble is unleashed. Yes, it takes more than a little bit of patience to experience this movement; but, once one adjusts one’s patience to “Bruckner time,” one is more than well rewarded.
Those who feel a need to start with smaller doses may wish to begin with the Te Deum. I have encountered this score frequently while listening to my Sirius satellite radio, and those experiences certainly shaped my own sense of time in listening to Bruckner. As had been the case with the recording of Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, the choral forces combine the Munich Philharmonic Choir with members of the Munich Bach Choir, all coordinated by Chorus Master Josef Schmidhuber. This is an excellent way to develop a taste for Bruckner’s sense of the expansive in both structure and sonority.
Another approach might be to listen to the excerpts of Celibidache rehearsing the ninth symphony. (There are excepts for each of the symphony’s three movements.) Even if one does not follow all (or any) of Celibidache’s German, one comes away with a clear sense of his meticulous control over how events play out, particularly in the first and third movements, both of whose durations exceed 30 minutes.
For most listeners the Bruckner box is likely to offer the least familiar selections, but that should be taken as an invitation to discovery that will result in highly rewarding listening experiences.