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The Celibidache Edition
Dvorak: Cello Concerto, Franck: Symphony in D minor, Hindemith: Mathis der Maler
Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5, Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel, Don Juan
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jacqueline du Pré
Recorded 1965-1971
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 469 069-2 4 CDs [257' 14"]
 £49.95  Amazon UK £55.99 AmazonUS nya


Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996) was a flamboyant, charismatic conductor and a musician of strongly held convictions. He was a meticulous rehearser, usually from memory and that not only due to failing eyesight but also because there was nothing he did not know about every detail of the music he was preparing for performance. He insisted on so many rehearsals ('his musical standards border on the inhuman', observed an adoring orchestral player) that few orchestras could afford him ('there is no miracle in music, only work' he would assert to justify his demands). He pointedly refused to conduct opera because it meant making too many compromises. He was also an implacable foe of the gramophone record. For Celibidache listening to a recording of a great piece of music was 'like going to bed with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot'. His view of the performance of music was encapsulated thus, 'Music arises out of the moment, and this moment cannot be fixed or repeated'. His speeds were judged according to several precepts and conditions including the complexity of note values (he loathed the metronome), their epiphenomena (in other words the sounds which appear from the division of the main note after it is played), and the acoustical properties of the hall in which the performance was taking place ('time is space'). Many consider his speeds too slow but most concede that he was capable of producing immaculate articulation, brilliant detail and vivid colours. His eye for phrasing and his ear for balance was everywhere in all he conducted.

After his death his widow and son decided to grant permission for his performances to be put on CD and a flood of live recordings of concerts has emerged during the past five years. EMI have released his concerts with his last orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, whilst DGG have his earlier encounters with two other orchestras he headed, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (who could afford to give him plenty of rehearsal time) on discs from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and with the Stockholm-based Swedish Radio Orchestra. Unfortunately this set is the first not to include a CD of him rehearsing, which often proved as revelatory as the results. Celibidache was only briefly in Stockholm, between 1965 and 1971, but left his mark with both players and public alike. Significantly he had few encounters with soloists (a marked exception was Michelangeli), personality clashes generally produced unhappy results but not with Jacqueline du Pré, who came to Sweden for two performances of the Dvorak cello concerto in November 1967, and the two got along well. Her unmistakeable sound with its quintessential physical attack at her first entry mark a striking encounter between two musical phenomena. He insisted on (and got) a piano rehearsal followed by three or four sessions with her and the orchestra, for his view was that the orchestra was not a servile accompanist but one half of a musical partnership. The result was a chamber music-like approach; her playing is intensely romantic and while phrases hang in the air (such as in the wonderful duet with the clarinet in the finale), the vibrato she uses has passionate warmth. The portamento sometimes seems old-fashioned but it all falls into place in the amazing clarity of both artists' musical thought in the Adagio. Du Pré clearly loved this music almost as much as her beloved Elgar concerto, and the result is flawless playing. Celibidache had an amazing capacity to make the listener come fresh to a work, however familiar it may appear to be, but in this instance we have the glorious playing of Du Pré as well.

What a pity DGG could not have filled the thirty minutes left on this CD with either some of the rehearsal of the concerto (if any of it was indeed recorded) or another work conducted by Celibidache. They were far more generous in eighty minutes of Sibelius, a bubbling account of the youthful second symphony with its skittish woodwind choruses and blazing brass. This recording (1965) was made early in the six year partnership between the SRSO and Celibidache, whilst that of the fifth (1971) clearly shows the difference he made to the orchestra during his tenure as conductor (he forbade the designation of his appointment to any orchestra as Chief Conductor). Not only has the playing quality significantly improved, but ensemble has unified and the sound taken on more refinement. This is not to denigrate the playing of the second symphony, there are magical moments aplenty, in particular the hushed pianissimo the strings achieve at times in the Adagio.

Every programme Celibidache conducted with the Radio Orchestra had to have a week's rehearsal (hitherto only two and a half days including the dress rehearsal were allocated) and it shows, particularly in the playing two of Strauss' tone poems. His detailed work would probably be neither tolerated not affordable today but in his superbly graphic reading of Till Eulenspiegel the solos are all immaculately refined in true Straussian style from that nerve-wracking solo horn passage to the leader's rapid descent of Till sliding down the bannisters, and the strangulated shrieks of the E flat clarinet as he goes to the gallows. It is exhilarating playing, and you can tell what's going on without knowing the story of Till's merry pranks. Don Juan gets off to a frenetic start but the performance (recorded in Nuremburg during a tour by the orchestra of Germany in November 1970) develops into a highly sensuous one with a glorious climax. En route Celibidache is always considerate for the orchestral solos excellently taken by his leader, principal oboist, clarinettist and horn player. The degree of accuracy in this performance of a work notoriously prone to accidents at any point along the way simply goes to show the extent of Celibidache's meticulous rehearsing, while his way of drawing the listener's ear through the textures makes for compelling listening. Coupled with this pair of tone poems is Shostakovich's quixotic ninth symphony, the 1945 creation expected to celebrate the Russian part of the victory at the end of World War II. Instead the result is a huge musical tongue in cheek, full of acerbic wit and acid humour. Celibidache's view of the work is given in this clean cut performance (March 1971) full of biting parody and wistful melancholy.

The familiar Franck symphony is easy meat for Celibidache, whose favoured interpretations of both French and German music find a comfortable synthesis in this Wagner-influenced work. He succeeds in drawing out the elegance of the phrasing, while once again giving both space and breadth to his players in their respective solos. For his powerful interpretations of music from the German repertoire, turn to the EMI set of Bruckner symphonies or the DGG Brahms cycle, but Celibidache also had a special affinity of a contemporary German composer, Paul Hindemith. Furtwängler took a defensive stance against the Nazis over Hindemith's 1934 opera Mathis der Maler and paid the price with the loss of his post as State Music Director, while Celibidache did not have to make such a sacrifice when he conducted most if not all of the composer's orchestral output. His interpretation is unsurprisingly full of powerful conviction, drawing on the strengths of the work's vivid orchestration and, in places, its contrapuntal infrastructure. Celibidache, unlike Stokowski, was not one for effects but a conductor whose conviction and drive was both purposeful and unshakeable in the pursuit of interpretation. There is never a moment when your attention will wander when listening to this man's musicmaking.

Christopher Fifield  



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