Cast your eyes over Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache’s
Wikipedia entry and you will find a link to a web page
that is entitled, rather provocatively, Sergiu Celibidache
- The Last of the Mad Genius Conductors?
As that page can no longer be accessed, we’ll never know
what conclusion its author ultimately arrived at. It’s
certainly true that the recent resurgence of interest in Celibidache
has polarised opinion. To some he is a revered conductor of
unparalleled depth and intensity who, thanks to a highly individual
philosophical-musicological approach, reveals scores in a unique
enlightening fashion. To others he is a rather dull interpreter
who frequently adopts the slowest possible tempi for
no discernable reason at all.
The writer of the booklet notes for this release, the distinguished
German actor and theatrical director Gerd Udo Feller, immediately
allies himself with the “genius” school of thought.
“On this DVD”, he writes, “a human universe
can be seen and heard, a universe that unfolds within us, that
is the inner experience of the consciousness in the act of freeing
itself, that is the innermost movement of consciousness as music…”
Herr Feller is clearly writing for an audience that he assumes
is au fait with Celibidache’s philosophy. Only
that would explain such further observations as this: “(Celibidache)
was an obsessive when it came to this inner experience, which
is a musical experience of freedom, an experience of consciousness
that follows a law within us: make the Many your own; in your
consciousness, lead the Many back to your experience of the
One; integrate them; be free again for a new encounter with
Enough, though, of the sort of language more usually encountered
in Private Eye magazine’s Pseuds’ Corner.
What can we actually see, hear and judge for ourselves on this
We hear the music - and, true to form, Celibidache to
some extent lives up to his own reputation.
At the opening of the first movement, even the simplest musical
phrases are (over)imbued with portentous gravity and tension,
while the consequent lack of propulsive power makes the score
sound essentially disjointed. As a result, the closing orchestral
peroration seems to come out of nowhere and to lack much relationship
to what’s gone on before. With the adoption of a greater
consistency of pulse, the second movement is much more successful,
with Celibidache drawing some wonderfully ecstatic sounds from
the strings. After a particularly driven and successful scherzo,
the finale - once again characterised by a disjointed opening
- quickly gets into gear. The Munich orchestra’s skilled
players achieve the wide dynamic range that the score demands
and are shown in a very positive light.
We could have appreciated the playing just by listening to a
CD recording of the same forces (see here
The bonus offered by DVD is that it enables us to see
- from the orchestra’s point of view rather than that
of the audience - exactly how a conductor acts physically so
as to achieve the end result in performance.
Celibidache was 73 years old at the date of this recording,
and in general resembled nothing so much as a rather stately
Buddha. He is, nonetheless, in full command on the podium and
communicates his instructions effectively to the players. A
well-turned phrase from the violins is rewarded by a smile of
appreciation; a conductorly eyebrow is raised to query something
not quite, perhaps, to his liking; we see an occasional scowl
- there are good examples at 27:08, 27:14, 49:54 and 84:04.
Once in a while, when this meticulously prepared conductor is
caught out by something unexpected, he gives a frightening glare
(20:20) that is sometimes accompanied by a vicious slap of the
air. I enjoyed, too, watching the moment when he comes to a
complete physical halt and stands with his arms at his sides,
just listening and giving no direction whatsoever (5:00 until
5:11) while the orchestra plays blithely on. When he needs to
lighten the mood - as the scherzo succeeds the adagio,
for instance - Celibidache smiles profusely. When he needs to
drive the orchestra onwards in the closing pages of the finale,
he shouts or sings along with them for a bar or two.
If the medium of film allows us to learn something about the
conductor, it is generally less revealing about the orchestra.
I came away, in fact, with only two particular and rather inconsequential
visual impressions. The first was that far too many players
- following the conductor’s shameful example and the Zeitgeist
of the 1980s - badly needed haircuts. The second was that the
timpanist, who is put into the solo spotlight several times
by the director, looks so young that you’d think he was
on a work experience assignment from school.
The visual medium also allows us to see the hall. Performance
spaces and their individual characteristics were very important
in Celibidache’s philosophy of music-making. The Gasteig
- which had only opened its doors for the first time in the
year of this performance - is a very attractive modern hall
with, as far as we can judge here, fine acoustics. This concert
attracted a well-heeled audience, with a woman in the second
row, presumably unfamiliar with concert-hall etiquette, actually
sporting a rather à la mode hat. Apart from a
rather bronchial end to the adagio, by which time they’d
kept remarkably quiet for the previous 23 minutes, the audience
members are commendably silent.
Klaus Lindemann’s direction for TV and video is fine,
with visual cues generally fitting the music well. I did, though,
wonder whether he had enough cameras at his disposal as the
variety of shots is quite limited. We see lots of the wind and
brass players, both individually and collectively, as well as
the precocious boy-timpanist, but shots of the strings are comparatively
rare. In fact, it was quite a shock when, as late as 65:10,
a new camera angle showed us, for the first time, the double
basses and cellos en masse in a prolonged shot.
On the technical side of things, my review copy of the disc
exhibited a slight degree of picture distortion at 8:36 and
a very tiny hint of picture judder at 41:08. It is worth noting
that those issues may just affect my copy. Beyond that, this
is a perfectly acceptable piece of video recording for its age,
though if your own home technology includes access to (1) high
definition TV broadcasts, (2) Blu-ray quality discs, or (3)
a large-screen TV that magnifies any deficiencies in less than
tip-top quality material, you will quickly be aware of its 1985
Incidentally, during the DVD’s closing credits you will
encounter the spelling “Celebidache” with an E as
the fourth letter. Admittedly, that is how the conductor’s
son spells the family name these days, but I’m lining
up with the DVD cover and general practice by sticking with
the spelling that I’ve used throughout this review.
You know how sometimes someone will tell you a funny story about
themselves - except that it isn’t funny and you end up
apologising for failing to laugh by saying “You probably
had to be there…” Well, that, in a nutshell,
was Celibidache’s philosophy when it came to musical performance.
To simplify it greatly, he believed in the singular individuality
of every venue, every audience and every performance. Thus,
he thought that recordings on LP or CD were incapable of reproducing
a concert’s specific atmosphere and the experience it
offered. It was, therefore, only reluctantly that he agreed
to films being made of some of his later performances.
This interesting DVD has made me wonder whether he was right
after all. Maybe, to appreciate the full Sergiu Celibidache
experience, it’s not enough to watch him on TV.
Perhaps you really had to be there…
Masterwork Index: Bruckner