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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no. 9 in D minor
Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. 1969, Turin
OPUS ARTE OA 0976 D [62:00]


This is an official release in which “RAI’s historic black and white master is faithfully restored … with digitally re-mastered 2-track mono”. We are not told the exact date but I presume – I haven’t made a detailed check – that it is the performance from 2 May 1969 which RAI re-broadcast from time to time and which I have on tape. In which case a stereo recording exists too.

The sound image is pretty clear. Posterity will probably thank the cameramen for being content, in the main, to concentrate on images of the legendary conductor. When they do shift their attention elsewhere the results are less happy. A shot of the leading cellist, for example, who continues to hog the scene until long after the melodic interest has been taken up by the violins.

Still, we have a rare opportunity to study Celibidache’s conducting technique in action. Almost more than any other conductor I’ve seen, his baton beats time unfailingly and with exemplary clarity. It might appear “text-book” or even “academic” conducting were it not for the eloquence with which his stick moves. His left hand does not cue in the instruments – after all those rehearsals they ought to know when to come in – but is continually adjusting points of balance and dynamics, beckoning an instrument forward here, damping one down there. His lank, almost Frankenstein-like face suggests extraordinary inner concentration. His mouth is firmly closed the whole time – the photograph you see on the cover with his mouth apparently exhorting the orchestra is not a still from this particular film – and the only facial expression is a slight raising of his eyebrows. You are left in no doubt that every detail of the performance has been controlled by the conductor.

When the performance ends, however, his first concern is to acknowledge the orchestra, not the public. They refuse his invitation to stand up, at which he remains for long with his back to the audience, applauding the orchestra. When he finally gets them on their feet he steps of the podium and shakes a few hands before turning towards the public with – at last – a wisp of a smile.

So much for the visual aspect. What of the performance? The presence of one of the RAI orchestras does not usually bring added value to historical resuscitations in which they take part, but that is to reckon without Celibidache. Suffice to say that the other evening I was watching a DVD of Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic late in life, and anyone who didn’t know would have taken the latter orchestra to have been the more provincial of the two. There are some patches of raw brass intonation in the scherzo but on the whole the Turin band acquits itself with honour.

At this stage in his career Celibidache’s tempi had not become so extreme as they did later. At 23:17, 11:03, 22:18 his timings are not particularly unusual. Indeed, the Turin public were to hear slower tempi in all three movements from Ferdinand Leitner in 1987: 24:05, 11:12, 24:08. Maybe they expected – or feared – something even longer drawn-out from Giulini in 1996 but in the event they got 23:18, 09:53, 22:32.

As Giulini’s faster scherzo – and Misha Donat’s accompanying essay – suggests, it is this movement, beaten in three by Celibidache, which might cause some surprise. Furtwängler and Karajan established a tradition for an “exciting” reading of this scherzo, but slower, menacing interpretations are not unknown. As we see, Leitner adopted such a view, and I remember back in my days at Edinburgh University that Alexander Gibson – whose Bruckner could often be awfully fast – surprised us all with a performance along these lines. He also beat it in three. Carl Schuricht was something else again. Only a tad faster, he relaxed during parts of the trio to evoke visions of old-world Vienna that I find hard to get out of my head.

Overall, this performance impresses by its inexorable growth. From the first note to the last we are caught up in Celibidache’s spiritual vision of the work, ranging seamlessly from far-off mystery to terrifying power. Reclusive legends sometimes gain momentum from their very silence. This DVD would of itself prove that Celibidache was as great as has been claimed. It is to be hoped that the RAI archives will yield further treasures, as well as the companion issue of the “Symphonie Fantastique” which was recently reviewed by Christopher Fifield. I don’t know how extensively his concerts were filmed but I remember seeing a Mendelssohn “Italian” as the first in a series of rebroadcasts, so at least a little more exists.

More generally, I hope that the RAI’s sound archive recordings of Celibidache might be investigated more fully. The concentration of DG and EMI on his later performances was the easy option, given that the recordings were more recent and the orchestras better. But Celibidache could get remarkably good results from the RAI orchestras and the original tapes can produce far better quality than might be imagined from the bootleg transfers that used to circulate on LP. Most importantly, Celibidache’s Italian years were those of his first artistic maturity, untainted by the lapses into self-caricature which sometimes disfigured his later interpretations.

Not for the first time, I find Misha Donat spoiling a basically good essay by his habit of relying on faulty memory for things he could very well look up. It is all very well to say, late at night in a pub, that “To the best of my knowledge Celibidache set foot in a studio on only two occasions: once, in 1953, to record the Brahms Violin Concerto with Ida Haendel for HMV; and again more than a quarter-century later, for his own composition Der Taschengarten in Stuttgart”. When you are writing an essay which readers may suppose to be authoritative, a brief attempt to improve your knowledge will do no harm. After a spot of Googling – which Donat could have done himself – I find that Celibidache’s Decca sessions, with the LPO in Kingsway Hall, were:

                        Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 5 (5.7.1948 + 9.6.1948)

                        Mozart: Symphony no. 25 (4.9.1948 + 29.12.1948)

                        Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite (28.12.1948 + 2.7.1949)

They have occasionally been reissued.

Christopher Howell 




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