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The Celibidache Edition: The Swedish Radio Recordings

Disc 1 - Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor, Jacqueline Du Pré, cello
Disc 2 - Franck: Symphony in D & Hindemith: Mathis der Maler
Disc 3 - Sibelius: Symphony No 2 in D minor* & Symphony No 5 in E flat major
Disc 4 - Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel & Don Juan; Shostakovich: Symphony No 9 in E flat major
Sergiu Celibidache, Swedish radio Symphony Orchestra
DG 469 069-2 4 discs - 45'20, 70'01, 81'18 & 60'35 - Stereo/mono*  only available as a boxed set, Full Price
 £49.95  Amazon UK £55.99  AmazonUS nya  CDNow nya

Celibidache's conducting career in the fifties and sixties took him largely out of Germany, a country he refused to conduct in immediately after 1954. This was almost entirely due to the fact that the Berlin Philharmonic had just elected Karajan as Furtwängler's successor rather than Celibidache himself who had been the orchestra's principal conductor during Furtwängler's enforced absence. He did not conduct the BPO again until almost 40 years later and spent the intervening years conducting an array of radio orchestras and less than world-class German ensembles. Deutsche Grammophon's seventh volume of their acclaimed Celibidache edition concentrates on one of these orchestras - the Swedish Radio Symphony.

It should be said from the outset that Celibidache largely gets superlatively responsive playing from his Swedish forces (albeit very fallible playing). The depth of string sound in the first movement of the Franck, for example, is more than suggestive of that special sound Celibidache could conjure from any orchestra he conducted - breathtaking string sonorities that are as resplendent as they are luminous. Where many conductors can take Franck's darkened palate and somehow turn it into a glutinous morass of density, Celibidache separates balances so violin and cello lines are spliced together and then splayed apart like a fragmented rainbow. In the Strauss tone poems, brass balances are ideal and woodwind playing full of character. The Sibelius offers stunning playing that, whilst at times Brucknerian in its expansiveness, is always utterly compelling. I don't think I have heard a better version of the Fifth symphony, and few that match the exhilaration of the Second.

For many, the prime interest of this set will be the first disc, an impassioned performance of Dvorak's Cello Concerto with Jacqueline Du Pré. It is not a disappointment, but I would be wary of people who say it finds both Celibidache and Du Pré at their most spontaneous and inspirational. Du Pré is, as ever in this work, intense - although I found her intonation somewhat less than perfect and some of the phrasing distinctly heavy, with portamento old-fashioned by today's standards. The cello's first entrance, for example, is grandly done but it sounds extraordinarily laboured. Elsewhere in both the first and third movements there are moments where she produces ritardandos of awesome breadth that seem out of place, even in this most romantic of cello concertos. Celi never seemed as fluent accompanying soloists as he was the martinet alone on the podium and those he did - Michaelangeli, Haendel, Fournier and Barenboim being amongst the best I have heard - were all highly characterful, even wilful, in their own right. Du Pré and Celibidache do not see, or achieve, much symmetry in this work with Celi wanting to push ahead in stringendo and Du Pré, oddly, wanting to hold back in ritenuto. It makes for an uncomfortable experience, tense though the performance is.

The Sibelius symphonies (occupying more than 80 minutes on one disc and hence causing some problems on one of my players) are vital performances. No 2, dating from 1965, is in mono - but still sounds splendid, not least in the thrilling brass perorations of the final movement. There is more than a hint of Barbirolli in this performance - not least in Celi's handling of the wind phrasing, particularly in the second movement. Elsewhere, Celi is Barbirolli-like with fleet and measured tempi, something that is not always a success, and often a source of diffusiveness in texture. The Fifth, however, is an incandescent performance that is thrillingly played, even if it does not have the opulence of Karajan's justly famous Berlin version from the 1960s. Although this performance is often Brucknerian in its spaciousness, Celi is also capable of some quite extraordinary shifts of tempo that leave his players following him like stampeding horses. The Thor's Hammer episode in the third movement is a triumphant display of Celibidache at his best, the shifts in tempo between the helter-skelter first and second movements compelling with the move from allegro to presto to andante beautifully scaled. Hear the close of the final movement with the hymnal stridency of its theme given cosmic expansiveness and lyricism and you will never want to hear another interpretation of this symphony again. It is by far the greatest performance on these discs.

Celibidache was a master Straussian and both of the performances of Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel vie with the best available. I marginally prefer the greater precision and expediency of Celi's Stuttgart Don - a nobler, more luscious hero than the slightly more urbane Swedish Don. Till is magnificent for its humour and drive and abounds with wit and sarcasm. DG, both in their press release for this set and on their web-site, incorrectly states this as being the second Till to be released in the Celibidache edition. It is Don Juan which is duplicated.

Shostakovich's bland Ninth symphony has never been a favourite of mine - coming as it does between the trauma of the Eighth and Tenth symphonies. Celi's advocacy of this work does little to change my mind about it, and I am not sure idiomatically this is anywhere near as persuasive a performance as is, say, Malko's Ninth with the New York Phil. As in Till Celi is clever at getting the psychological parody to manifest itself in musical sound, but this is largely too melancholic a performance for my tastes with a waltz of almost saccharine sweetness. Celibidache conducted Hindemith's music often during his career and his performance of Mathis der Maler is magnificent in penetrating the complex contrapuntilism of this work. The brilliance of the fugue in the final movement, for example, is handled with the most astute use of drama and yet retains its tension when most conductors let it lapse. Strings are spaciously intense - almost rapt - in their phrasing. Celi gives this work a genuine gravity that belies its complex, almost formulaic conception.

Anything by Celibidache is worth hearing and these discs contain some remarkable performances (notably the Strauss, the Sibelius and the Hindemith). Production values are again extremely high, although this set does not contain any rehearsal material - something all six preceding sets have contained on a bonus disc. It was rumoured from the start that this edition was going to eventually contain over 60 discs - so there is far to go. Apart from Celi's Italian radio recordings from the fifties and sixties, there are some key recordings that should be considered by DG for future release - including recordings Celi made with both the Danish Radio Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. From the latter, there is a Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, some Debussy, a Dukas L'apprenti sorcier, some Kodaly and Ravel, and if it can be found, his Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet excerpts. Additionally, CD issues of Barenboim in the two Brahms concertos and the Berlin Phil Bruckner Seven are long overdue for release. Two Munich recordings EMI did not release were a Strauss Four Last Songs with Jessye Norman and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan. I have not heard the Strauss, but the Wagner (once on Meteor from Japan) is one of the most incandescent accounts of the Tristan I have ever heard. It sums up more completely than anything else those elements which made this conductor so great.

Marc Bridle


Dvorak - ****

Franck - ***(*)

Hindemith - *****

Sibelius 2 - ****(*)

Sibelius 5 - *****

Strauss - ****(*)

Shostakovich - ***(*)

Sound - ***(*)

Previous review from Christopher Fifield

Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996) was a flamboyant, charismatic conductor and a musician of strongly held convictions. He was a meticulous rehearser, usually from memory and that not only due to failing eyesight but also because there was nothing he did not know about every detail of the music he was preparing for performance. He insisted on so many rehearsals ('his musical standards border on the inhuman', observed an adoring orchestral player) that few orchestras could afford him ('there is no miracle in music, only work' he would assert to justify his demands). He pointedly refused to conduct opera because it meant making too many compromises. He was also an implacable foe of the gramophone record. For Celibidache listening to a recording of a great piece of music was 'like going to bed with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot'. His view of the performance of music was encapsulated thus, 'Music arises out of the moment, and this moment cannot be fixed or repeated'. His speeds were judged according to several precepts and conditions including the complexity of note values (he loathed the metronome), their epiphenomena (in other words the sounds which appear from the division of the main note after it is played), and the acoustical properties of the hall in which the performance was taking place ('time is space'). Many consider his speeds too slow but most concede that he was capable of producing immaculate articulation, brilliant detail and vivid colours. His eye for phrasing and his ear for balance was everywhere in all he conducted.

After his death his widow and son decided to grant permission for his performances to be put on CD and a flood of live recordings of concerts has emerged during the past five years. EMI have released his concerts with his last orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, whilst DGG have his earlier encounters with two other orchestras he headed, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (who could afford to give him plenty of rehearsal time) on discs from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and with the Stockholm-based Swedish Radio Orchestra. Unfortunately this set is the first not to include a CD of him rehearsing, which often proved as revelatory as the results. Celibidache was only briefly in Stockholm, between 1965 and 1971, but left his mark with both players and public alike. Significantly he had few encounters with soloists (a marked exception was Michelangeli), personality clashes generally produced unhappy results but not with Jacqueline du Pré, who came to Sweden for two performances of the Dvorak cello concerto in November 1967, and the two got along well. Her unmistakeable sound with its quintessential physical attack at her first entry mark a striking encounter between two musical phenomena. He insisted on (and got) a piano rehearsal followed by three or four sessions with her and the orchestra, for his view was that the orchestra was not a servile accompanist but one half of a musical partnership. The result was a chamber music-like approach; her playing is intensely romantic and while phrases hang in the air (such as in the wonderful duet with the clarinet in the finale), the vibrato she uses has passionate warmth. The portamento sometimes seems old-fashioned but it all falls into place in the amazing clarity of both artists' musical thought in the Adagio. Du Pré clearly loved this music almost as much as her beloved Elgar concerto, and the result is flawless playing. Celibidache had an amazing capacity to make the listener come fresh to a work, however familiar it may appear to be, but in this instance we have the glorious playing of Du Pré as well.

What a pity DGG could not have filled the thirty minutes left on this CD with either some of the rehearsal of the concerto (if any of it was indeed recorded) or another work conducted by Celibidache. They were far more generous in eighty minutes of Sibelius, a bubbling account of the youthful second symphony with its skittish woodwind choruses and blazing brass. This recording (1965) was made early in the six year partnership between the SRSO and Celibidache, whilst that of the fifth (1971) clearly shows the difference he made to the orchestra during his tenure as conductor (he forbade the designation of his appointment to any orchestra as Chief Conductor). Not only has the playing quality significantly improved, but ensemble has unified and the sound taken on more refinement. This is not to denigrate the playing of the second symphony, there are magical moments aplenty, in particular the hushed pianissimo the strings achieve at times in the Adagio.

Every programme Celibidache conducted with the Radio Orchestra had to have a week's rehearsal (hitherto only two and a half days including the dress rehearsal were allocated) and it shows, particularly in the playing two of Strauss' tone poems. His detailed work would probably be neither tolerated not affordable today but in his superbly graphic reading of Till Eulenspiegel the solos are all immaculately refined in true Straussian style from that nerve-wracking solo horn passage to the leader's rapid descent of Till sliding down the bannisters, and the strangulated shrieks of the E flat clarinet as he goes to the gallows. It is exhilarating playing, and you can tell what's going on without knowing the story of Till's merry pranks. Don Juan gets off to a frenetic start but the performance (recorded in Nuremburg during a tour by the orchestra of Germany in November 1970) develops into a highly sensuous one with a glorious climax. En route Celibidache is always considerate for the orchestral solos excellently taken by his leader, principal oboist, clarinettist and horn player. The degree of accuracy in this performance of a work notoriously prone to accidents at any point along the way simply goes to show the extent of Celibidache's meticulous rehearsing, while his way of drawing the listener's ear through the textures makes for compelling listening. Coupled with this pair of tone poems is Shostakovich's quixotic ninth symphony, the 1945 creation expected to celebrate the Russian part of the victory at the end of World War II. Instead the result is a huge musical tongue in cheek, full of acerbic wit and acid humour. Celibidache's view of the work is given in this clean cut performance (March 1971) full of biting parody and wistful melancholy.

The familiar Franck symphony is easy meat for Celibidache, whose favoured interpretations of both French and German music find a comfortable synthesis in this Wagner-influenced work. He succeeds in drawing out the elegance of the phrasing, while once again giving both space and breadth to his players in their respective solos. For his powerful interpretations of music from the German repertoire, turn to the EMI set of Bruckner symphonies or the DGG Brahms cycle, but Celibidache also had a special affinity of a contemporary German composer, Paul Hindemith. Furtwängler took a defensive stance against the Nazis over Hindemith's 1934 opera Mathis der Maler and paid the price with the loss of his post as State Music Director, while Celibidache did not have to make such a sacrifice when he conducted most if not all of the composer's orchestral output. His interpretation is unsurprisingly full of powerful conviction, drawing on the strengths of the work's vivid orchestration and, in places, its contrapuntal infrastructure. Celibidache, unlike Stokowski, was not one for effects but a conductor whose conviction and drive was both purposeful and unshakeable in the pursuit of interpretation. There is never a moment when your attention will wander when listening to this man's musicmaking.

Christopher Fifield  



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