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: Symphonies No 7 in E major, No 8 in C minor and No 9 in D minor.
SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Celibidache
DG 445 471-2 4 discs (66'32, 57'16, 54'05 & 59'18) + bonus rehearsal disc
Full Price - Volume V of the Stuttgart Recordings



Sergiu Celibidache's Bruckner is often monumental. It is also revelatory in a way no other Bruckner conductor equals. Celibidache conducts these great symphonies as if he were King Lear himself, for in every bar of Bruckner's scores he scales heights of pathos and emotion most other conductors simply do not see in Bruckner's writing. These performances are elemental, and Shakespearean in their greatness.

Two years ago, EMI released recordings of Celibidache conducting the 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies in recordings that he made in Munich in the 1990s. These were, without exception, the most expansive performances of these works ever put on disc. The mighty Eighth Symphony grew to a massive 105 minutes under Celibidache's baton, but it revealed details in Bruckner's writing that were astonishing. The Ninth, often just a torso with its incomplete final movement, was given a breadth that made it almost appear complete. In the final movement Adagio, Celibidache endowed this music with a darkness and desolation that was intensely doom-laden, and in the second theme crescendo, the sense of the music's inevitability and majesty was given unrivalled power. In the Seventh Symphony, the coda to the first movement was inexorable. The tempo hardly seemed to matter, for, with fine orchestral playing and inspired conducting, the music grew naturally. These were, without doubt, great performances.

Whilst the EMI recordings could not be offered as first recommendations (as indispensable as they are), these releases on Deutsche Grammophon fall into a different category. The tempos are extremely mainstream - in the Ninth he falls into the fastest 25% of all commercially released recordings of the work, and in the Eighth he takes 20 minutes off his 1993 recording. Yet, these recordings are still able to offer insights that are unique. Where Bruckner marks string values within a bar p and pp the difference is audible, as it is when he simultaneously marks a flute p legato and an oboe pp cresc legato. Diminuendos soften as they should, f and mf are transparently different in texture. Giving meaning to these dynamics, Celibidache enlightens Bruckner's writing, embellishing the surrounding umbra with a startling halo of diamond-edged brightness. It is this, the candle flame with its beading, that makes these performances so great. Furtwängler, Karajan, and Giulini are all quite extraordinary in Bruckner, but Celibidache alone weaves a Prospero-an tapestry which merges the dream and terror of Bruckner's synthesis.

The Seventh Symphony was, from early on in Celibidache's career, a favourite symphony. In September 1946, he conducted his first performance of this work in Berlin, just into his second season as the orchestra's principal conductor (and in 1992 returned to the orchestra after forty years absence to conduct this very work in a series of concerts). The performance on this disc is from June 1971, and coincided with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra's 25th anniversary. It has attained legendary status, and justly so. It is muscular and passionate in equal measure, quite magnificent in the sweeping drama of the two colossal opening movements. Its dimensions loom like a skyscraper.

The Seventh is Bruckner's most beautiful score, the harmony often gleamingly golden, its tone moving between solemnity and exultation. Celibidache opens magnificently, the cellos at bar 3 emerging through the ether of the violins' beautifully sustained tremolo. It is magically done, but is symptomatic of the swelling passion which Celi gives this movement. This is no more apparent than in the coda (bar 391, 19'21) as E major is restated in a climax that rears nobly to its final brass peroration. The woodwind and brass change to mf at bar 421 beautifully, the final shift to fff at bar 433 all the more powerful because of the deliberate build-up to this concluding moment. It works in most performances, but Celi's Stuttgart orchestra is more richly ennobled than most. It is also interesting to note that at bar 233 (marked molto animato), Celibidache does not observe this marking in its entirety - rather he allows the music to remain in tempo so that at bar 281 the recapitulation of E major moves in almost unnoticed. The power of the movement is thus given its structural integrity. It is precisely this kind of insight that makes a Celi performance such a thrilling experience.

The Adagio scales some quite astonishing peaks. The first of these is the weighty climax at bar 127 (12'51) as the movement shifts to G major, the second the movement's final crescendi, building up from bar 164. Celibidache endows both of these moments with quite staggering breadth (the moment is even greater in his EMI recording). The much disputed cymbal clash at bar 177 (18'08) is piously observed by Celibidache, the movement ending on a perfectly sustained ppp. The scherzo, and particularly the Trio, are gorgeously phrased by Celi. Here the richness of the performance is helped by the relative fleetness of the tempi. Bruckner's scherzos can often seem dull beside the enormity of the outer movements of the late symphonies, but the DG Seventh benefits from this swiftness. The Finale is at once as grandiose as it is triumphant.

It is difficult to make a choice between Celi's EMI and DG recordings of the Seventh. The former has an astonishing structure which Celibidache builds almost stone, by granite stone. The Seventh's inherent greatness is that it can be played at this slow tempo, so evolutionary and momentous are the tonalities. The pulse in this performance is irresistible, and watching Celi conduct this work in the Sony video of a Munich performance from Tokyo, I could not live without this kind of organic development. The sonorities are thrilling. The DG Seventh has a similar greatness, and the sound is again massive (the closing pages of the last movement being particularly impressive).

The DG performance of the Eighth is one of the finest I have ever heard. As I have already said, the EMI Eighth is the slowest on record (and only marginally slower than the Sony video performance taken from a Tokyo concert). The differences in tempo are illuminating so I will list them here:

EMI: 20'56 ; 16'05 ; 35'04 ; 32'08

DG : 16'16 ; 13'52 ; 27'08 ; 26'04

The EMI recording offers one of the profoundest listening experiences you could ever hope to hear - but it will, for many, be ruled out because of the breadth of the reading. For some, this performance is otiose in a way that makes hearing it a burdensome experience; for others, it is a magnificent synthesis of Bruckner's greatest score. In Celibidache's hands the piety of the reading is laid out like the leaves of a Bible. Its insights are phenomenal - no performance before, or since, has offered such a plethora of detail. It has no rival.

"Seldom can a performance of Bruckner's Eighth have had such spiritual breadth and analytical clarity, permitting a glimpse into the creative process itself." The German critic, Gerth-Wolfgang Baruch wrote this comment after hearing this DG recording on 23 November 1976, a performance that was part of a concert tour of Berlin, Paris and Hamburg and which has often been described as the summation of Celibidache's Stuttgart years.

Celibidache very wisely uses Leopold Nowak's 1890 reworking of the score, the version that has today become the (almost) standard edition of this work. The Robert Haas version has been taken up by Karajan, Wand and Haitink (to name some), but is essentially a hybrid restoring elements of the 1887 original, notably in the Adagio. Nowak removed Haas' restored passages on the basis that his score mixed sources, and hearing the Nowak one is aware of a much more intense development of the symphony's underlying structure.

Celibidache himself makes one crucial alteration (the only one he makes) and this occurs in bar 5 of the opening movement. Bruckner originally scored the first woodwind entry for clarinet, but Celibidache changes this to a bassoon. He also, significantly, changes the notation so rather than the clarinet opening G-G-D-D, Celi has his bassoon play C-C-G-G. The effect is to enhance the opening of the symphony's basic harmony - the melody in fact opening with C minor (the key in which the symphony is written). It is effective, but only becomes questionable if one disputes the establishing of C minor so soon into the opening (in all other performances the opening tonality is in G flat and D flat).

The opening pages, in any event, are still remarkable. They are perhaps less unsettling than they would normally be because Celi, uniquely, defines the opening tonality but the move from exposition to development to recapitulation is deftly handled. This is a performance which has tonal drama, one in which the chromaticism is given a tremendous structural greatness. The rhythmic cells are woven beautifully - the contrasting and diverse themes of the movement given an epic gait. The scherzo is fresh, and surprisingly rugged. At the speed Celi takes, one is quite aware of this being a symphony of two halves - and in this sense it is finer than the EMI performance. The Adagio and Finale, with their magnificent tonal lustre, are here given greater impact. The EMI recording gives the impression of one interminable line of harmony; in the DG the harmonic elements are fragmented and juxtaposed.

The Adagio is cased in the most shimmering gold. Celibidache conducts this movement like no other conductor: it glitters like a crown, and at almost every bar a jewel is caught in a ray of blinding light. At bar 6 (0'43) and bar 9 (0'58) the clarinets first entries are fabulously detailed. At Figure A (1'35), the first ff is triumphant, similarly the entry of the harps at bar 25, where Bruckner's markings of ff, dim. and mf are scrupulously detailed and scrupulously played. At Fig. E (bar 83) the flutes, clarinets and oboes mark their legatos with unique feeling for inner sound. The harmony is enveloped in the most subtle colouring imaginable. The strings at 8'33, just before Fig. F and the build up to the first climax, play with a solemnity that is heartrending. When the climax arrives (11'40) it is shattering. The movement's last great climax (and where Nowak removes the Haas additions) is prefigured at 18'47 with an extraordinary ff (Celi himself is audible). Its power is indissoluble, the purity of the strings in their upper harmonics fantastically rich, the fff at bar 239 (21'28), with timpani added, earth shattering. By contrast, the closing bars (266-291) are sublime: Celi takes this coda majestically, the horns ringing like bells, the strings (both pizzicato and bowed) richly toned. In very few performances on record is the move between darkness and light so clearly wrought, the gestures of this movement's consonance and dissonance so beautifully transfigured. The sonorities are plush - cellos are baritonal, violins and violas play with a velvety voice, the brass fanfares are blazingly bright, almost dazzling.

Bruckner described the Eighth's Finale as the "most significant movement of my life". It is a magnificent achievement, that begins with a great fanfare for brass and ends with perhaps the greatest coda ever devised for a symphony. The coda starts in C minor, and then shifts to the full orchestra in a staggering fortissimo restating themes from the preceding movements: horns recalling the scherzo, trumpets the opening pages of the finale, horns the adagio, and trombones the opening movement. It ends in a torrential blaze of glory, under one of the most thrilling canopies of sound in the entire symphonic canon. Celibidache's EMI recording gives us a coda of considerable breadth, the gestures (particularly for brass) often astonishingly rich. The DG is much more transparently exciting, the final C major emerging like a thunderbolt. Its greatness in this recording is self-evident.

This Bruckner Eight is a formidable interpretation, and certainly one of a handful of the 100 odd recordings of this work ever made available that is truly great. Celibidache makes more of this work's shadows and light than most. His Adagio is the most Tristanesque I have heard, and his scherzo lays out the complex emotions of its writing more clearly. Both Furtwängler (Berlin 1949) and Celibidache (DG 1976) are, I think, essential listening in this symphony (editions apart). Furtwängler gives this work a massive, towering structure, albeit much more freely conducted than Celi, who reveals this work's development from the deepest abyss to the most triumphant moments of glory more enigmatically. Both are passionate and both give this work's vast dimensions an unforgettable spirituality.

For those who know Celibidache's Bruckner Ninth only from the EMI recording this DG release will be a shock. It is an extremely fast-paced interpretation, taking almost 8 minutes off both the first and last movements compared with the Munich recording. Although it dates from 1974, earlier recordings form Turin (1969) and Stuttgart (1961) are faster, but not excessively so, and only conductors such as Schuricht, Horenstein (VSO, 1953), Keilberth, van Beinum and Furtwängler have made anything of this symphony at similar speeds.

The whole work is on a gigantic scale - and, unusually, for Bruckner, is a work where the opening tonality is very rarely challenged. This is D minor pure and simple. Celibidache does not placate Bruckner's overwhelming sense of terror in this symphony - rather, he embraces it. Where this is most evident is in the Adagio and in this movement alone is a great performance of this work made. Here, the crescendos and forte markings are more than just statements. In Celibidache's hands they are awesome moments of true terror. The first such moment is at bar 17 (1'57). But the moment that really matters is the great crescendo built from the second theme. It is an enormous moment, catastrophic in its impact, tearing at the throat like a lion's jaw. Its very massiveness draws fire from its tempo, and it is a moment that benefits from breadth. Giulini, in his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, is shattering here. Celi, in his EMI recording, gives this section a majesty and cumulative power that is unrivalled on disc. Celi (DG) and Furtwängler (1944) are both magnificent - but the effect is more wrenching than shattering.

The development begins at Fig. M (17'01 on DG, 22'13 on EMI) and progresses to the first ff at Fig. Q (19'12 on DG, 24'55 on EMI). The added time on the EMI recording gives this section a wonderful depth of sonority that makes it exceptional. It's thrill is manifest in its breadth.

Unlike the Seventh and Eighth symphonies where I prefer the DG recordings, in the Ninth the EMI has an unparalleled depth of tone and majesty that personifies the terror of this symphony more than any other. It is one of the great Bruckner records.

Other releases in Deutsche Grammophon's Celibidache Edition have been more controversial in terms of tempo, but these Bruckner recordings challenge other versions directly. Artistically, they are an outstanding set offering performances of the Seventh and Eighth that are certainly amongst the greatest on disc. The Ninth is magnificent, although very different in character to his EMI performance. I would not hesitate in recommending this issue but would hope listeners would also acquire the EMI discs. To have both is not a luxury, but to understand the musical development of one of the greatest Bruckner conductors of the last century. Both the playing and the sound is first rate (although you are more aware of Celi's own exhortations in the DG discs than you are in the EMI ones). The discs come, as ever in this series, with a bonus rehearsal disc - here of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies.



Marc Bridle




Marc Bridle



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