Le Carnaval romain, Op.9
Overture The Hebrides (Fingals Cave), Op.26
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Op.21Schubert
Má Vlast Vltava
Johann Strauss II
Italian Opera Overtures
La gazza ladra
La scala di seta
La forza del destino
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
Overtures CD recorded between 1984 and 1996 in Munich, Herkulessaal der Residenz and Philharmonie im Gasteig; Italian Opera Overtures recorded between 1982 and 1995 in Philharmonie im Gasteig
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: March 2005
CD No: See above
Duration: See above
These may be off-cuts from the symphonic repertoire for which Sergiu Celibidache (1912-96) was famed, but they are fascinating off-cuts. These two CDs of overtures cannot be mainstream recommendations – but they do contain much that is fascinating. For some of the time this is the musical equivalent of a very large man performing Tai’chi with enormous slowness and studied grace. It is as if in old age (but not only then) that Celibidache’s metabolism felt music roughly 20% slower than what we call ‘normal’. The two Mendelssohn overtures, and the Smetana tone poem (hardly an overture!), may take longer than ‘standard’ performances, but timings are only statistics and there is much here that is truly rewarding.
Celibidache’s typical care for the quality of sound, timbres and balances pays particularly rich dividends in the understated, refined account of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and both of Mendelssohn’s pieces – all three are revealing and intensely memorable. The Mendelssohn selections are instances of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. The Hebrides opens with the gentlest of deep sea-swells with Staffa viewed as if by luminescence. The transitions have an almost Brucknerian grandeur and expansiveness, and if the allegro section can be considered too slow, when the storm finally arrives is undoubtedly the real thing. Similarly, the hugely expansive yet delicate performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of wonder and perfectly captures Mendelssohn’s adolescent response to the magical world of Shakespeare’s play. When that final descending string phrase is spun out into infinity, there is no doubt that we have been transported to another world – and that surely is a measure of a great performance.
More controversial is the remainder of the CD – although even here there are numerous compensatory insights. Rosamunde opens heavily, as if Celibidache would have preferred to conduct the ‘Great C major’ Symphony (which he actually does on an earlier-released EMI CD), although the buoyancy of the rhythms in the Allegro is a joy. In Vltava, Celibidache is several minutes longer than Rafael Kubelik is, one of the most consistent and finest interpreters of Má Vlast (he made five recordings of the complete work). In Celibidache’s hands, Vltava expands from its trickling source into the fullest-scale symphonic poem, the Polka impossibly slow, but even here the sense of narrative power is never lost as we pass from the moonlit scene to the turbulent rapids and into the open sea. Least satisfactory is the final item, Die Fledermaus, which is laboured and unidiomatic. A mixed bag, then, occasionally wrong-headed but strangely memorable nonetheless, especially the Mendelssohn and Berlioz – and never less than the work of a great conductor.
Curiously, since Celibidache didn’t ‘do’ opera, it is the other disc, of opera rather than concert overtures (Don Giovanni is to an Italian libretto), which is the less controversial. A famous conductor, who shall be nameless, once spent a whole session rehearsing the Philharmonia Orchestra in the cello-only opening to the overture to William Tell. Also, under Celibidache, this beginning is perfectly balanced – and not a second too long. The succeeding alpine storm may be slow-moving but the idyllic pastorale and final, exhilarating galop are touched in with a light hand. Celibidache has a real feel for the sound of Rossini’s orchestra – agile strings, a touch of vibrato from the horns (Semiramide) and plangent wind-playing, which is also evident in the other three overtures here. In particular, Celibidache never lets the percussion be too loud and overwhelm the rest of the orchestra. Yes, these performances may last a whole lot longer than we are used to – but they are never trite and there is much affection here. They also happen to be superbly balanced and phrased. Everybody sounds like they are having fun – an essential prerequisite for Rossini. La scala di seta is not the most polished of performances, but there is a certain deadpan wit to the playing and I defy this account of La gazza ladra not to put a smile on your face. Preparing these Rossini performances was clearly a labour of love for Celibidache.
A similar stylistic acuity informs La forza del destino. This was a piece that figured in the second of Celibidache’s concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra in the late ‘seventies, itself comparable with a contemporaneous Chicago SO performance under Solti. I vividly recall being struck then by the lightness of touch and subtlety that Celibidache brought to this music. So it is here, in Munich, the piece treated for the most part with a certain vivid restraint, which is entirely convincing. Again, the percussion is never allowed to overwhelm.
About the lumbering, flatulent Don Giovanni the less said the better. However, there is much that is enjoyable on this CD – and even Celibidache’s failures are frequently more interesting than others’ successes. If you buy just one of these releases, make it the Italian Overture one. Both CDs include a fair measure of applause, maybe too much.