The Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who died on August 14, 1996, tends to be better known by reputation than by his actual work. While not as violently opposed to recording as legend has it, his priorities were always focused on performing experiences, rather than studio sessions. Furthermore, he was never shy about his disdain for other conductors who had built up their reputations through extensive recording libraries; and I seem to recall one profile in which “idiot” was one of his favorite adjectives. (That adjective had multiple targets, but I shall omit specific names out of discretion.)
Nevertheless, towards the end of his career, when he was Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic, he consented to allow EMI to make and release recordings of his concert performances with that ensemble. The fruits of that effort are now available in an extensive anthology, whose 48-CD count more than doubles the content of Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Great EMI Recordings, which occupied much of my listening time this past August. While the Furtwängler anthology was released as a single box, the Celibidache recordings have been packaged into four boxed sets:
- Symphonies (14 CDs)
- Sacred Music & Opera (11 CDs)
- Anton Bruckner (12 CDs)
- French & Russian Music (11 CDs)
Those who follow the above hyperlinks to Amazon.com will see that each box has been assigned a number but that their numbering differs from the above. No sequence numbers appear on the boxes themselves. The Amazon number may follow the EMI catalog ordering; but my own organization attempts to be a logical one, which I shall now try to explain.
I feel it is appropriate to bring up the subject of Furtwängler when discussing Celibidache. If the latter had a proclivity for extreme invective in talking about other conductors, he never concealed that he revered Furtwängler above all others. Eckhardt van den Hoogen’s essay in the booklet for Symphonies (translated into English by Richard Evidon) applies the epithet “beacon” (enclosed in quotations) to Furtwängler; and listening to the EMI Furtwängler recordings definitely provides guidance when approaching Celibidache. Thus, while the organization of the EMI boxes does not follow the way in which I organized my approach to the Furtwängler anthology, I have tried to come up with a useful approximation to that ordering. From that point of view, I have chosen to begin with the box that has the greatest overlap with Furtwängler’s recorded legacy (not just with EMI).
Before examining the symphony recordings themselves, I want to make one point about Celibidache’s overall style. Much has been made about his preference for slower tempos. Having heard Celibidache in performance, I know that the tempo selections for his recordings often differ radically from what I heard in concert. My conjecture is that, because of his meticulous attention to every last detail, often involving extensive rehearsal time, Celibidache wanted as much of that detail to register in any recorded document. This meant slowing things down to allow the listener to appreciate all of that detail without the benefits of either a conducive acoustic space or the benefits of actually watching the performers.
Another reason for my beginning with symphonies is that my only concert experience involved a program of two extremely familiar symphonies: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 550 in G minor and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 67 in C minor (the fifth). What made this event memorable, however, was that, for all of that familiarity, Celibidache conceived a reading leaving the impression that one was hearing these works for the first time, not through radical revisionism but by teasing out details that tend to get lost in the bombast of most performances. Celibidache served as both music theorist (taking apart ever last piece of the structure and then reassembling it all before our ears, so to speak) and phenomenologist (demonstrating just how far those of us on audience side could go in our capacity for both auditory perception and time-consciousness).
I have written often about the fact that even the best audio capture technology can never do justice to the overwhelming bandwidth associated with such an experience. This is why it is important that Celibidache has deliberately conceived his performances for recording with those limitations in mind, even though all of them still take place within the communion between performers and audience in a concert hall setting. Do those conceptions work? The bottom line is that some of them work better than others.
The composer that seems to fare best under this approach is Johannes Brahms; and fortunately he is represented by all four of his symphonies, as well as the orchestral version (Opus 56a) of the Haydn variations. I say “fortunately” because those who followed my accounts of Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Great EMI Recordings know that I was least satisfied with the Brahms offerings. In that case I had tried to pin the rap on the Vienna Philharmonic (having heard other recordings of Furtwängler conducting Brahms). The Munich Philharmonic may not have quite the same reputation as those Viennese, but they certainly learned how to follow Celibidache down his every path. Where Brahms was concerned, those paths flowered with myriad insights, all embedded in heartfelt interpretations of his most moving passages.
By the same count one finds excellent readings of the last three symphonies of Robert Schumann. Too many conductors seem to approach these symphonies with the assumption that symphonic writing and orchestration were never Schumann’s strong suits. Celibidache has none of this. He takes the cards that Schumann dealt and knows exactly how to play them as a winning hand. Where things get a bit shakier is when we move back in time. His sense of tempo means that he conducts the menuet movements of both Mozart and Joseph Haydn as if one might actually want to do a formal dance to them; but the deliberate approach to the other symphony movements does not always seem to catch the proper spirit. Then, when he has to take on Beethoven’s rejection of the menuet for more ambitious forms, the sparks do not always fly. There are definitely impressive moments in each of the symphonies in the collection (the first is missing, but there are two performances of the fourth); but the most compelling Beethoven reading is probably that of the third of the Leonore overtures (Opus 72a).
Ultimately, however, these shortcomings are relatively minor. A concert performance by Celibidache used to be able to change one’s very thoughts about what it meant to listen. So much of the material in this Symphonies box achieves this goal that no serious listener should be without it.