Celibidache’s Bruckner

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.3 in D minor [1889 version, edited Nowak]
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1880 version, edited Nowak] *
Symphony No.5 in B flat [Haas edition]
Symphony No.7 in E [Haas edition]
Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version, edited Nowak]
Symphony No.9 in D minor [Nowak edition]
Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485

SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra *

Sergiu Celibidache

All recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, except Symphony No.4:
Symphony No.3 – 24 November 1980
No.4 – 24 September 1969, Philharmonie, Berlin
No.5 – 26 November 1981
No.7 – 8 June 1971
No.8 – 23 November 1976
No.9 – 5 April 1974
Mozart – 20 June 1976
Schubert – 31 October 1979

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: January 2005
CD No: DG 477 5136 (8 CDs)
Duration: 7 hours 48 minutes

“They’re really not useful at all” was John Cage’s blunt assessment concerning the value of recordings. Whilst no works of Cage were in the repertoire of Sergiu Celibidache (1912-96), he would more than likely have shared the American composer’s assertion, since he assiduously avoided the recording studio for the best part of his long and distinguished career.

A mere handful of commercial recordings survive from the 1950s and the bulk of Celibidache’s legacy has, until comparatively recently, been accessible only via ‘pirate’ recordings.

Authorised releases started a few years ago. Those from Celibidache’s final years as Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra have been issued by EMI, whilst Deutsche Grammophon released a series of boxes including performances from the 1960s and 1970s emanating from Stuttgart (mostly) and Sweden.

One could have an interesting and protracted debate as to whether or not one should be listening to these recordings at all, since Celibidache was insistent that music “comes alive” in the concert hall and should only be experienced in that setting.

In essence he was right, yet in adopting this dogmatic approach he was denying those unable to be present at his performances from experiencing some remarkable and very individual interpretations.

I never heard Celibidache in concert, yet I have come to admire and respect his work hugely through the recorded medium he eschewed and disdained.

This re-issue of Bruckner symphonies is in DG’s “Collector’s Edition” and makes a welcome appearance at mid-price, albeit without the two discs of rehearsal extracts included in the original full-price releases. What Celibidache devotees will need to know is how these performances differ from those emanating from Munich, which have already been made available, by EMI. That Bruckner set also includes a remarkable performance of the 6th Symphony along with the Te Deum and the Mass in F minor. (Celibidache only conducted Bruckner’s symphonies 3-9 and the choral works just mentioned.)

In Stuttgart (and Stockholm for Symphony No.4), Celibidache’s Bruckner is rather leaner in sound and, in overall terms, comparatively fleeter-footed. Indeed, some of these DG-issued performances may surprise those who consider Celibidache’s approach to have been generally slow and leaden. This impression might well be gained from the Munich/EMI releases where tempos are undeniably on the spacious side.

But more than a decade or so earlier, Celibidache’s view is altogether more urgent at times, with the earlier symphonies especially given a sense of onward propulsion and the scherzos (I think of that in No.4 particularly) conveyed with an exhilarating momentum; this performance of No.4 was recorded in 1969 in the Philharmonie, Berlin, the home of Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic.

In Munich, there is very often the feeling of a realisation on the part of the conductor that he may well be performing the music for the last time and is unwilling to forgo that experience. There is a comparable sense of this in some of the later recordings by Leonard Bernstein who, later in his life, also largely avoided the studio and preferred to record ‘live’.

But Celibidache in his sixties, when most of these DG Bruckner readings were given, is less willing to linger, and at times there are reminders of the fiery performances he gave as a much younger man.

Yet the more expansive movements – such as the slow movements of numbers 7 and 8 – have more than the requisite space to breathe and occupy a very special aural landscape. It is this quality of allowing the music time to grow and develop that is one of Celibidache’s hallmarks. In the first movements, Celibidache’s architectural sense is such that there is none of the ‘stopping and starting’ that often affects performances of this music since, like Furtwängler, the silences are charged with tension, and the symphonic structures have evident strength and purpose. (Although Robert Haas’s edition is claimed for Symphony No.7, it could be argued that it is actually Leopold Nowak’s. Celibidache preferred Haas’s quieter dynamics but includes the disputed cymbal clash at the Adagio’s climax, something added by Arthur Nikisch, an early conductor of the work, maybe, maybe not, with the composer’s agreement, and published by Nowak and including triangle and timpani. Robert Haas, at this point, eschews all percussion including timpani, which Celibidache also retains – Ed.)

One of the fascinating aspects of hearing these symphonies in sequence is that, in Celibidache’s hands, each acquires a distinctive character of its own, whilst the same musical mind is recognisably at work throughout, and culminates in a particularly distinctive interpretation of the unfinished Ninth Symphony. Here, a most special atmosphere is invoked, with troubled dissonance and anguished harmonic thinking, suggesting Bruckner reaching for territories new to those he had inhabited in his earlier symphonies.

So as a traversal of these monumental works, this set makes for a most absorbing – if not always comfortable – journey. Not for Celibidache a somewhat generalised, homogenous approach making each symphony indistinguishable from its companions, but something quite distinctive and special to the symphonies individually and as a sequence.

The symphonies by Mozart and Schubert are characterised by a comparable care and dedication of approach. If, in the last resort, we are now used to hearing less weighty attack and generally more rapid tempos, one can nevertheless admire Celibidache for his consistency and – perhaps more importantly – his sheer love of the music.

No-one could pretend that either the Radio orchestras of Stuttgart or Sweden are on the very highest level, but their playing is never less than admirable and determined to realise their conductor’s intentions.

Bearing in mind that the readings were never intended to be issued commercially, and setting aside the fact that Celibidache would prefer us not to be hearing these performances at all, one can, nevertheless, commend this set. The very thought of a studio-manufactured performance was anathema to Sergiu Celibidache, and it is the spontaneity, open-heartedness and even vulnerability of his readings which makes them all the more endearing, absorbing, and thoroughly worthwhile exploring, even via the medium he deplored.

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