DVD Review – Celibidache and Bruckner

0 of 5 stars

Sergiu Celibidache and Bruckner’s Mass in F minor
In Rehearsal in Munich and at St Florian

A Film by Jan Schmidt-Garre

Margaret Price (soprano)
Doris Soffel (contralto)
Peter Straka (tenor)
Matthias Holle (bass)
Hans Sotin (bass)

Munich Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Celibidache

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: January 2002

As the editor of classicalsource.com I am amazed how little coverage we have given to Sergiu Celibidache. I’m a fan (to put it mildly) of ’Celi’ who has hoovered-up every ’pirate’ CD I could find of this extraordinary conductor’s work. I was then able to write (elsewhere) on DG and EMI’s selection of Celi’s concerts that have been officially released under the management of his son. As far as cs.com is concerned, this regrettable oversight will be remedied!

In the meantime for anyone not knowing much or anything about Romanian-born Celibidache (1912-1996), well, he headed up the Berlin Philharmonic for a short time after the War before the Orchestra usurped him for Karajan. Celi hated studio recording and made only a handful of records in the ’fifties – Mozart and Tchaikovsky for Decca, Prokofiev and Brahms’s Violin Concerto (Ida Haendel) for EMI. Except for a later taping of a piece he’d written, that’s it. As a composer he wrote four symphonies – I’d like to hear them.

Most of Celi’s time was spent with radio orchestras, which afforded him the copious rehearsals he demanded. Most notable was his tenure of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony in the ’seventies – the basis of DG’s releases – which was followed by his Directorship of the Munich Philharmonic from 1979 until his death, his concerts there are exclusive to EMI. From this treasure-trove of releases, DG’s to-date seven boxes offer uniformly excellent representation and best suggested to the uninitiated – the Brahms symphonies, two boxes of Bruckner, Russian and French collections, one of Strauss and Respighi, and another mixing Franck, Hindemith and Shostakovich and including an astonishing Sibelius 5.

With his move to Munich, Celi’s speeds became even slower, a continuing distillation of his scientific and cosmos-related approach to music. From EMI’s releases, I would cite Debussy’s La Mer and Iberia, Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, Beethoven’s Second and a fabulous Bruckner 4 as mandatory listening. I regret that Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, originally issued by EMI as an introductory release, didn’t make it into the three subsequently issued 11-CD boxes. Everything else that DG and EMI have made available remains in the catalogue.

Although Celi’s greatness and individuality extends beyond Bruckner, even Celi’s detractors – and there are some! – acknowledge his empathy with this composer. This 60-minute DVD film of Celi rehearsing Bruckner’s F minor Mass offers a fascinating glimpse of Celi at work. I question the stated date of 1993. The soloists are those on EMI’s Munich recording [CDC 5 56702 2], which is cited as March 1990. Hans Sotin replaces Matthias Holle for the St Florian presentation, which is indicated as being contemporaneous; furthermore Celi’s ’looks’ suggest the earlier time. Threaded through with excerpts from the St Florian performance, the film intercuts rehearsal there with earlier ones in Munich featuring the choir with piano and with soloists and orchestra; also the orchestra alone. The booklet suggests a Celi interview; it is not in the film nor tracked separately.

Whatever Celi’s dislike of the recording studio, he allowed his concerts to be broadcast and archived; also he had no problem it seems with cameras or an audience being at rehearsals. One can learn so much at rehearsals – about the music itself when it is taken apart, and how musicians achieve their goals through their working methods.

Celi was infamous for wanting something like ten rehearsals for each concert – enough for ten concerts in London at one stage. When he returned to London in the late ’seventies, after a long absence to work again with the LSO, his week-long preparation for a programme of Stravinsky, Debussy and Brahms (Fourth Symphony) was not spent working solely on the music. As two current members of the LSO told me, both Celi admirers, he spent the first three-hour session tuning the orchestra, a 50-minute process and an early escape for the musicians. He also gave a non-compulsory talk as to his musical philosophy. Rehearsals otherwise were a psychological preparation for the concert, time being spent challenging the players to listen to each other and adapt accordingly regarding balance and acoustic. Seemingly simple things like a C major chord divided between three trombones would be painstakingly balanced until the C, E and G were perfectly distributed and sounded as equal tones; well-tempered brass – a luxury! No doubt Celi’s work in Stuttgart and Munich was similarly Zen-like.

Such attention is a microcosm of Celibidache’s art with sound, of acoustic-science. The results, live and on CD, could be astonishing. Criticism of Celi’s slow tempi fails to understand why his speeds are so determined; a critical focus on them reports a failure to hear Celi’s finite colours, blends and balances; nor to appreciate his sense of harmonic and directional structure – neither compromised by slower than normal motion. Charges of Celi being a crank, a charlatan or just plain boring are easily refuted by those with ears to hear and perceptions beyond the obvious.

This film comes with English subtitles and includes Celi’s observations on the music itself, Bruckner’s parallel and motivic construction. Come the move to St Florian, the meticulous preparation in Munich and performance there is tweaked within St Florian’s different ambience, not least the positioning of the choir – “there is no discussion” barks Celi when he wants it to move forward from the back wall; asides to his players abound for them to mind St Florian’s “echo” and to fashion accordingly the required legato.

On first name terms with the orchestra’s principals, Celi can be questioning, witty, intimate and berating – “can’t you hear he’s coming down, it’s marked pianissimo anyway” the strings are denounced when, in the ’Benedictus’, the flute soloist decrescendos and they do not respond in kind. With the choir he is friendly, smiling, patient and instructive; with the soloists he is courteous and conversational. Celi’s understanding of Bruckner’s music seems to me to be unnervingly complete – he rehearses, as was customary, from memory – and does not interpret, a word he loathed. Rather he clarifies Bruckner’s notation, raises the performers’ perceptions so they appreciate their part in the whole and draws everybody together through careful listening and acoustic-response – to create an atmosphere “without any kind of demonstration.”

Celi’s demands for concordant fulfilment of melody and harmony, his perfection-seeking balances and dynamics, bring remarkable results. That he could be difficult and very probably maddening for those working under him does not alter the fact that he was a remarkable, genuinely unique musician who ultimately served music to astonishing effect. This film goes someway to explaining why and how. Having watched twice, I shall watch again – one never stops learning. Celibidache was one of the great pedagogues and musical soul-bearers; I shall always be profoundly grateful to him. This film brings the genesis of his ideals nearer and I recommend this DVD release to friend and foe alike.

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