Symphony of Psalms
Margaret Price (soprano)
Alan Titus (baritone)
Munich Philharmonic Choir
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
Both recorded in Munich Stravinsky in January 1984 at the Herkulessaal der Residenz; Fauré in March 1994 at Philharmonie im Gasteig
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: March 2005
CD No: EMI 5578512
Duration: 71 minutes
As might be predicted, Sergiu Celibidache does not take a ‘traditional’ view of Fauré’s Requiem. Conceived for liturgical performance, assembled over a period and intended for modest forces, it is customarily given a gentle, reflective, elegiac reading and, in some instances, becomes a species of Anglican, if not downright Anglicised, church music.
In Munich, Celibidache favours a different approach. Here, one senses a large communal mourning, with hushed, reverent tones and tenebrous orchestral weighting. At the start, one might suggest that the choral phrasing, with its pointed detaché quality is rather mannered, though when this same passage returns at the conclusion of the ‘Agnus Dei’, the effect isstrangely moving, as if serving as some kind of ritualistic refrain.
After this introduction, the tenors’ phrases have an ineffable air ofsadness about them – and a similar description might apply at numerous points throughout the performance. In fact, very often, there is little cosy comfort; instead an intensity is suggested in this music that has seldom – if ever – been revealed, with, in the ‘Offertoire’, for instance, post-echoes of “Parsifal”-like anguish in the string writing.
In this second movement, Alan Titus provides a dark solo voice, though it has to be said that he sounds less than totally comfortable at the expansive tempo the conductor sets for his ‘Hostias’ solo and here, as on occasions elsewhere, the chorus does not always avoid being slightly under the note.
The flowing pace for the ‘Sanctus’ allows for warm and effectivecontrast, with the movement crowned by noble, glowing brass.
Margaret Price is a maternal voice of consolation in the ‘Pie Jesu’,rather than the cherubic choirboy of convention, and she and Celibidache make this a moment of simple solace rather than an opportunity for excessive sentimentality.
I was unprepared for the degree of urgency Celibidache injects into the ‘Agnus Dei’, and very effective it is too, building to a climax of some force and leading to the poignant reprise of the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’.
The ‘Libera me’ is taken at an immensely measured ‘4 in a bar’ rather than the intended two beats and whilst this certainly conveys a weary processional-like feel, I am not completely convinced that the music’s inherent momentum is not distorted, and the baritone solo’s line is inevitably chopped up.
The brief ‘Dies illa’ is undeniably powerful, though it is dogged andstoic in character rather than having onward-moving impetus, but the horns are extraordinarily menacing. The return of the ‘Libera me’ music sung by the unison chorus is too loud; though, again, the sense of ritual is compelling.
In the final ‘In paradisum’, the organ semiquavers are intrusive,though, to be fair, this may be due to the balance as recorded, and there is not the sense of seraphic serenity some may prefer in this music.
Without going into the well-worn arguments for and against hearing Celibidache’s performances via a recorded medium, this interpretation of Fauré’s Requiem is quite fascinating. Clocking in at around 45 minutes, it is around 10 longer than the average, and a few more than a 1982 performance with the LSO, which was issued on CD as an ‘unofficial’ release. This latter, duration-wise, is directly comparable with Giulini’s recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra on DG, though the Italian maestro’s view is altogether softer-grained than that of Celibidache.
In what is perhaps an unexpected coupling, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is given a reading which is comparably hierarchical in character.
I was surprised to read, in the accompanying booklet, that Celibidache apparently referred to Stravinsky as “an amateur genius”, but acknowledged the composer’s “fantastic ear for the orchestra”.
There is certainly no hint in this performance that the conductorharboured any doubts about the integrity of Stravinsky’s inspiration, and the light shed by Celibidache on Stravinsky’s orchestration, and the care with which his intentions are realised and executed are, literally, illuminating.
The opening choral phrase – ‘Exaudi orationem meam’ – keening between two plangent notes, is accompanied by double-reeds, and Celibidache ensures that Stravinsky’s detailed markings, calling for instruments in unison, but separately and simultaneously staccato and legato, is unerringly caught. The music sounds strangely both from the distant past and yet unquestionably modern. In fact, I cannot recall hearing a rendition of this score where points of this kind are so finely judged, and yet form an integral part of the fabric as a whole.
The spiky two-piano writing lends a distinctive timbre to the totalsonority, and winds blend to create an almost organ-like tone in places, especially the long lines in the last movement.
Celibidache does not linger to the extent he can do, and there is afirm structural sense conveyed, giving the work real symphonic cohesion.
The first movement’s rhythmic insinuation is strongly projected, whilst, in the second, the contrapuntal interweaving sound is more than usually Bach-like, with the lines uncommonly clear, and the music’s culmination is both passionate and intense.
The faster central section of the concluding setting of Psalm 150 has inexorable momentum with, again, details of orchestration registering most tellingly, and there is an exhilarating feel to the central climax.
This is framed by steady pacing of the opening and closing music which almost exudes a sense of timelessness and, as in the Fauré, suggests something ceremonial.
This is certainly a reading which I shall want to return to, and thedisc is a further document of Celibidache’s thoroughly individualistic musicianship, a product of deep and careful consideration. Like it or not, his conducting cannot be ignored.