This set has been in and out of my CD tray countless times since my review
copy arrived. I have sat captivated, marvelling at the wondrous shaping and
detail of Celibidache's readings of Debussy and Ravel.
Without reiterating the comments I made in my review of the Richard Strauss
and Respighi - Stuttgart Recordings Vol III, I would stress again his meticulous
attention to every detail of the scores: dynamics, phrasing, and balance
etc and his concern for complex textures to feel light and ultra-transparent.
He adopts slower tempi than many rival conductors but the music never drags,
as Patrick Lang comments, "His so-called slow tempi undoubtedly were a
fundamental condition for allowing the sonorities to vibrate in all their
fullness". Celibidache was concerned that sounds should ideally generate
rather than follow each other, that his readings might be viewed as a musical
tapestry growing organically with every element inter-related and perfectly
The cloud music of Nuages the first of the Nocturnes has a real feeling
of tranquility and weightlessness but of isolation, too. Celibidache achieves
this by allowing himself the freedom of not being shackled by a strict 6/4
pulse and allowing maximum expressiveness from divided strings and cor anglais
(English horn). Celibidache's Fêtes is certainly the "Brilliance
of angry tambourines and sharp trumpet calls" as the lines go from one of
Henri de Régnier's Poems Anciens et Romanesque that inspired
this Debussy work. I played the third movement, Sirènes, over
and over again, relishing the beauty of the women's voices that Debussy used
so brilliantly as an extra orchestral instrument. The voices in unison or
multi-part are sinuous and curving, distant then close; always seductively
ravishing. Celibidache refines their strange sonorities by varying their
vowel "a" from a closed "u" to an open "a", which also allows greater nuances
in the articulation of the second theme.
La Mer illustrates "Celibidache's constant concern for what he called symphonic
continuity"; how to integrate the contrast between surfaces of differing
rhythms and instrumentation, how to give a sense of unity to a line that
is divided between several instruments playing in succession. Astonishing
details are revealed in this way." There is "an inner calm and a natural
long-breathed quality" to the music which allows La Mer to grow naturally,
organically and make climaxes when they come all the more compelling. I would
give just one example. Towards the close of the first movement, all is serene;
one might visualise calm sea in mid-distance, the surface glinting brilliantly
under a high sun; then a breeze stirs and you feel the water stir; a wave
rises and grows in size and momentum as it comes towards the front of the
sound stage to crash with considerable force immediately before us.
Celibidache "repeatedly stressed that the chief difficulty in Debussy's score
is not to lose oneself in the multiplicity of isolated "impressions"
- small motifs, rapidly shifting colour combinations and characteristic movements
- but always keep sight of the whole, which gives rise to individual roles
What Celibidache admired in Debussy, among other things
was his invention of a totally original language which he used with complete
mastery from its very inception, no matter how daring the means; in particular
he marvelled at colours never heard before - yet heard precisely by this
composer -which lent Ibéria its unique brilliance and suggestiveness.
One must marvel at how well Debussy captivates the Spanish idiom for he hardly
ventured into that country travelling only to San Sebastian! The first movement,
In the highways and byways, has an exotic and sultry flavour but the highlight
is the perfect poise and pacing of the superb slow movement, 'Perfumes of
the night' you can feel the soft breezes wafting delicate fragrances. Delicate
glissandi, beautiful phrasing and the subtly evocative spread of sound with
every ppp chord discernible yet optimally blended - this is a well-nigh perfect
rendering including the inspired transition from the serenity of night to
the soft daylight awakening and the increasing joyful frenzied celebration
of the rhythmically fascinating and colourful Jour de fête.
Celibidache was always concerned to distinguish between the music of Debussy
and Ravel. He felt it was inappropriate to lump together their two quite
different musical personalities. Celibidache's reading of Ravel's Alborado
del gacioso is a transparent shifting kaleidoscope of vibrant colour.
The opening Prélude à nuit of Rapsodie Espganol is
an exquiste balance of fine filigree detail - a sensuous evocation of a sultry
night. The Malaguena has a proud spirit and swirl with a haughty upturned
flourish at the end of certain phrases. The quiet, slow Habanera teases with
its characterful glissandi and seductive glides and sultry purring woodwinds
and suggestively low horns. The Feria is a faster and a riot of colour and
As a personality, Ravel was quite unemotional - on the surface. Accordingly
and as Patrick Lang says in his booklet notes, " a concertgoer once remarked
that Celibidache was neither a robot like Mravinsky nor an exhibitionist
of feelings like Bernstein. His passion always flared up underground, but
it was aristocratically restrained. This may explain why he was an incomparable
"Don't get sentimental" he used to exhort his musicians
during rehearsals, fighting down any tendency to isolated effects, to
self-congratulatory rubato or vibrato as an end in itself. In the version
of Ravel's second suite from Daphnis et Chloé, recorded here
the chorus is absent. Celibidache's opening Lever du jour is a beautifully
controlled and blossoming evocation of sunrise before reaching a brilliant
fortissimo. As Lang comments, "this entire surface grows in intensity to
attain an imposing grandeur, with all the larger and smaller articulations
constantly drawing new breath organically, as though of their own accord."
The playful, twittering woodwinds beautifully phrased and balanced against
heady orchestrations, colour the voluptuous Pantomime. The concluding
Danse générale is voluptuous and very thrilling with
no sacrifice of clarity in the huge climaxes.
The smaller forms of the four movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin
receive just as much attention and respect. In the opening
Prélude Celibidache is concerned to balance a softness of string
bowing to the delicacy of the woodwind writing, and the pastels of low flute,
harp and horn, to achieve a playful poignancy that haunts. The Forlane here
loses that mechanical impression that endangers so many rival performances;
instead we have meticulous phrasing that floats the composition beguilingly.
There is great refinement too in the playing of the Menuet.
Celibidache's reading of La Valse is real dance music. Whereas so
many conductors are tempted to cast a satirical eye on this work and introduce
sour notes, Celibidache's reading is a celebration of the Vienese waltz form
- an affectionate and respectful homage. Again, quoting Lang, "
can hardly cease admiring the translucence and far-sightedness with which
Celibidache measures out the forces and, like an experienced dancer, how
he always gives himself enough time to savour individual themes along the
way -remaining true to his motto 'let it heat itself up' Therein lies one
of his 'secrets': where most conductors press on to add urgency to the
intensification, he tends to hold back, creating a degree of tension that
he allows to discharge by itself at precisely the right moment, as though
of its own accord and with tremendous force." "Like an experienced dancer",
yes that's a key phrase for Celibidache phrases the music beautifully in
accord with the dancers' grace, allowing the music to glide and accenting
in exact synchronisation with their movements. This is a glorious evocation
of an elegant formal ballroom; you feel that you can hear the swish of the
ballgowns, the bustle and twitter of the guests on the periphery and the
swirling colours and scintillating lights. It's all here. I really don't
think I have heard La Valse played better.
The remaining rehearsal CD is a fascinating document and proves Celibidache's
ceasless strivings for his perfection. Those with a grasp of the German language
will clearly derive the most benefit from it but it is more or less a
distillation of all the points made above.
A marvellous collection which is bound to figure highly amongst my records
of the year.
An aside - if only Celibidache had conducted Arnold Bax!