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Celibidache - You don’t do anything – you let it evolve
Filmed in 1991
All formats
Picture format 4:3
Directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre
Subtitle languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian
Experience Classicsonline

The Rumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996) was a complex man, who studied mathematics and philosophy as well as music. With his craggy Geronimo features, his multilingual talents dominating this film, we are in the world of student adoration of a master who casts pearls before a varied bunch of budding conductors, bored-looking orchestral players and zombie-like choristers. Celibidache talks too much on the podium, and it must have been frustrating beyond belief to play for him in rehearsal unless you were willing to surrender your personality - as well as your musical identity - completely and utterly. Much of it seems pointless rambling, such as on the direction of the beat, why the 2nd goes across the body in 4, but out and away to the right in 3. ‘When do I know that a piece has come to its end? I know it when the end is in the beginning’. That seems wise enough, but on the other hand, when there are no more notes to play might be more to the point? A more profound if obvious description was ‘A rehearsal is the sum of countless “Noes” (Not so fast, not so loud, not so lifeless, not like that). How many “Noes” are there? Trillions. How many “Yeses”? Only one’.

It’s the Celibidache show, for it all seems to be for the benefit of the camera. It probably always was. There’s a fascinating clip of him conducting most of Beethoven’s Egmont overture with the Berlin Philharmonic forty years earlier in 1950. He kept Furtwängler’s seat warm for him after the war until the older man was de-Nazified, then after his death Celibidache was passed over in favour of Karajan. Celibidache never conducted the BPO again. This particular clip is largely face-on of Celibidache conducting like the proverbial wild man of Borneo, hair awry, manic look, staring eyes, sweating brow, baton thrashing. The men of the BPO play well enough (fast and furious) but there seems little love lost between them. More human are the reminiscences of the orchestral players of the Israel Philharmonic, with whom he chats informally years later. There are some tactful comments to camera of how he had mellowed over the decades, but much can and should be read between the staves. It is ultimately the opinion of the orchestral player which counts when it comes to judging the quality of a conductor, rather than the audience member who only sees and hears the final product - but seeing often counts for more than hearing when it comes to podium prancers. There’s a talented - if terrified looking - student orchestra from an Academy in Schleswig Holstein playing under him, and of the students, a rather puffed up young Italian conductor who has the courage to stand up to the old man when explaining how he was conducting a Bach recitative accompagnato. He probably went far thereafter in his career. Other students scribble furiously. What on earth were they writing down of their guru’s largely incoherent ramblings in various languages? It must have made strange reading when revisiting those notes. There are no complete performances of anything in this hagiography. We dip into Bruckner (Mass in F minor and the fourth symphony), the overture to Verdi’s Forza del destino, the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth (not much playing allowed before he eulogises the Master), but there is also some fascinating coaching of a Brahms’ String Quartet.

It’s a reminder of the man who hated freezing any musical performance in time on the gramophone record, believing that spontaneity and transience were the name of the game. The best compliment he says he was ever paid was by a woman in an audience early in his career, who came to him and simply said ‘That’s it’. And that could have been the title of this film.

Christopher Fifield




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