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Mussorgsky orch Ravel:
Pictures at an Exhibition;
Symphony No.5, Scythian Suite, Romeo & Juliet (excerpts);
The Firebird (1919 Suite),The Fairy's Kiss - Divertimento

Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
Deutsche Grammophon 445 139-2 (3 CDs + bonus CD)

A Celibidache performance doesn't always have to be slow. In any case, Celi's tempi are irrelevant if you listen to his blending of colours, the precise interplay between instruments, and have a feeling for the creation, interaction and dissolution of sound.

From the late 'seventies and early 'eighties, these performances of Russian classics find Celi at his greatest. Returning to my opening comment about tempo, anyone coming to the Prokofiev items in this set who is already familiar with the music, will not I think, be disorientated by any of Celi's speeds. It will be his command of the orchestra that impresses while he remains true to the structural and emotional intentions of the composer. This is especially so of the 5th Symphony, given an epic, powerful, striving and, ultimately, riotous performance. The Scythian Suite is a supreme example of Celi's painstaking preparation. The second movement's controlled aggression and the final sunrise, here overwhelming, are wonderful examples of Celi's capability. He had a special feel for Romeo & Juliet - nobody conducts `Romeo at Juliet's tomb' with this amount of intensity or generosity of expression.

If I am somewhat disappointed with Pictures at an Exhibition, a Celi favourite, it's only because he, as always in this piece, under-characterises some of the individual sections, replacing description with a distracting, if fascinating, pre-occupation with tone-colour. On one level though, Celi's unflinching regard for sound itself does at least suggest that Ravel's brilliant orchestration lacks the `Mother Earth' sonorities that would be more appropriate to this very Russian music - a criticism sometimes made of Ravel's version and confirmed, no doubt unwittingly, by Celi.

The Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky items suit Celi best of all. I shall never forget a performance of Sheherazade he gave in London (with the LSO) in, I think, 1979, which was just breathtaking. This Stuttgart reading from 1982 (if this date is correct, he was already a few years into his long Munich tenure) immediately puts the listener under some sort of spell. This is a hypnotic performance but you must remain totally engaged if you are to appreciate all the remarkable colours and details Celi conjures from his committed orchestra. Only Celi finds so much menace in the double basses in the last movement, from 0'10" and 0'50".

In The Fairy's Kiss, Celi appreciates the Tchaikovskian influence and moulds the lyrical episodes with restraint while keeping the faster moments rhythmically buoyant and instrumentally clean. The Firebird's magic properties are also subtly drawn and blended - Celi presents a potent atmosphere; his controlled vitality is thrilling in King Kashchei's Infernal Dance. [DG's notes say this is a Suite from 1923. Effectively it's the familiar 1919 version in contents and instrumentation.]

The Stuttgart Radio tapes have been excellently re-mastered to present Celi's orchestral wizardry in vivid and tangible sound.


Colin Anderson


Colin Anderson

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