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The CELIBIDACHE Edition - The Stuttgart Recordings Volume IV
(1862-1918)Nocturnes; La Mer; Ibéria (Images pour orchestre No. 2)
Maurice RAVEL
(1875-1937)Daphnis et Chloé (Suite No. 2); La Valse; Le Tombeau de Couperin; Alborado del gracioso; Rapsodie espagnole SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Celibidache  DG 453 194-2 3 CDs [163:28] with bonus CD containing La Mer rehearsals [47:59]

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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 balanced.


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 and moments…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 rhythmic twists.

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 Ravel conductor… "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, "…one 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!


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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