One of the very greatest of conductors, Sergiu Celibidache (1912-96) led the Munich Philharmonic from 1979 until his death. His antipathy to the recording studio was legendary, but he was open to rehearsals being filmed and concerts being broadcast and archived – thankfully, for his legacy is of untold riches, whether from Stuttgart Radio for Deutsche Grammophon or previous Munich releases on EMI/Warner Classics.
Celibidache: musically-probing, acoustic-scientific, cosmos-related, mystical, demanding of much rehearsal time, demanding of the musicians, uncompromising in his approach. This Mahler/Strauss coupling is new (save for unofficial releases of both in Japan some years ago). It’s an apt if sombre pairing that is musically compelling and enlightening. Celibidache entertained numerous luminaries during his Munich tenure – including Argerich (Schumann), Mintz (Brahms), Perahia (Beethoven and Mozart), Perlman (Beethoven), Heinrich Schiff (Dvořák) – in collaborative harmony. Only Mutter was a faller; she and he could not agree how Sibelius’s Violin Concerto goes, so she exited and he substituted a Haydn Symphony. Perhaps Celibidache’s staunchest ally was Daniel Barenboim, who went back to Munich on several occasions, commenting that he always left a changed man (indeed, Celibidache’s influence on what music is capable of, what lies within, is amazing) and also that this conductor’s approach bears no relation to the clock on the wall; nor should it, after all this is music, a supreme act of creation and recreation, not metronomic mediocrity.
Brigitte Fassbaender was another distinguished musician prepared to pool resources with the Romanian master, to mellow fruitfulness in the case of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Don’t expect ‘beautiful singing’ but do expect a deep feeling for the words (Rückert’s German is included in the booklet) and a nuanced expression that carries all before it, an unvarnished reading of many truths, the measured tempos sustained with import and intensity, singer and players interacting and collectively at-one with these elegiac and eloquent settings.
As for Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, this expansive (thirty-minute) performance is thrilling and spine-tingling, a far-reaching approach that never sags, for Celibidache knows how to fill the space, and why – and the result is revelation after revelation. The Munich Philharmonic is set rather distantly in a large acoustic, but the sound (courtesy of Bavarian Radio), if a little edgy in the loudest passages (the Mahler is better), at least conveys Celibidache’s wide dynamic range and a galaxy of sonic/textural observations as he sustains a remarkably unbroken account, tension maintained, notable for vivid characterisation and internal connections – and a quite glorious (both tear-jerking and uplifting) conclusion, built towards with hypnotic concentration. You just have to be a willing partner and let Celibidache take a bit more time to get there – be assured, he knows exactly where the music is going.
Applause is retained, which is a shame, especially as both works end quietly, and when you are not in the same room as the audience it is intrusive, but at least the clapping is afforded separate tracks, so programming it out is easy. What is paramount, however, is that Celibidache’s art lives on.