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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 4 in B flat major op. 60 [37:05]
Symphony no. 5 in c minor op. 67 [35:50]
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live 19 March 1995 (no. 4), 28, 31 May 1992 (no. 5), Philharmonie am Gasteig, Munich
EMI CLASSICS 56521 [77:57]

Eyebrows may be raised initially at the timing for the second movement of the Fourth Symphony. At 13:19 it is considerably longer than the next longest in my collection: Furtwängler (Berlin 1943), which lasts 11:41. Most conductors, including Klemperer, are around the ten-minute mark.
And yet it does not seem so slow at first. Celibidache manages to give the idea of a serene 3-in-a-bar, not a plodding 6. However, other conductors who begin slowly find they have to speed up at various points. Celibidache holds his tempo steadily but, for all the beautiful playing, some passages really crawl past because there just aren’t enough notes to fill them at such a tempo.
The first movement begins with an impressive air of mystery but the “Allegro vivace” has little more than a sort of stately grandeur to recommend it. The same goes for the Scherzo. Again Beethoven has asked for “Allegro vivace” but there’s nothing vivacious here. The marking for the finale is “Allegro ma non troppo” and no one could say Celibidache is too lively. The question is whether this amiable stroll is lively at all.
Slow tempi suggest a comparison with Klemperer, but the latter’s Philharmonia recording has a drama and tension that are lacking here. We know that Klemperer in his younger days was something of a firebrand. He may have slowed down in later years but he did not, at least in his best recordings, lose all contact with his earlier self. It would be interesting to hear an earlier Celibidache reading to see if the child was father to the man.
For the Fifth, I have been able to compare the present reading with one he gave in Milan on 8th January 1960. Consider these timings:

Toscanini 1939
E. Kleiber 1953 (Amsterdam, studio)
E. Kleiber 1955 (Cologne, live)
Celibidache 1960 (Milan, live)
Celibidache 1992 (Munich, live)

  * = repeat taken.
Apart from a somewhat more expansive slow movement, Celibidache 1960 is in the Toscanini/Kleiber zone: a tense, fiery performance with a terrific sense of line. The articulation he gets from the Milan strings is extraordinarily vivid. Only a couple of horn bloopers, in places where they are guaranteed to cause maximum irritation, would stand in the way of a very high recommendation if this were issued. It is in any case clear that Celibidache was at that time one of the supreme interpreters of this symphony.
At first sight the Munich first movement seems a case where Celibidache has actually speeded up a fraction, but in reality he omits the repeat and takes nearly as long even so. It’s a majestic reading up to a point but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a performance, even some quite bad ones, lose tension in the last pages of the movement the way this does.
The slow movement seems just about tenable at the beginning but, as in that of the Fourth, there are some passages which, however beautifully played, are scarcely coherent at such a crawl. The scherzo is dignified with a pedantic trio. Basically the movement has been slowed down to a waltz tempo and the spooky “Valse triste” Celibidache creates at the pizzicato return has a certain fascination, though I fail to see what it has to do with the job in hand. The finale opens like a grand coronation scene. Shorn of drive, certain passages later on reduce Beethoven to the level of an outgoing organ voluntary by some Victorian worthy.
More than anything, I find this infinitely sad. The great interpretation of the 1960s has not just slowed down, it has lost all its fire and tension. There are those who feel this about Klemperer’s stereo remake. Personally I find its sheer conviction makes for a greater experience than before, so I’m not a priori opposed to slow tempi. It’s useless to put timings when Klemperer gives both outer movement repeats and Celibidache doesn’t, but the latter’s tempi are slower in every case. Put on Klemperer after this and you can only be struck at the lithe drama of his reading.
I don’t know whether these plump, half-hearted traversals show that Celibidache’s fires had all but burnt out in old age, at least as far as these two works are concerned. Or whether they bear out the truth of his own conviction that a performance was a sort of mystic communion between performers and public and as such impossible to capture on disc. Personally, I find it hard to believe that anything SO wonderful in the hall could be SO apathetic on record. At least something of the experience would have to remain. Either way, his reputation was hardly served by putting out these performances and only reinforces my conviction that Celibidache reached his peak in his Italian period. Whatever the technical and orchestral shortcomings of the recordings from this period, the decision to issue exclusively recordings from his last years was an easy option and in these two works it hasn’t paid off.
Christopher Howell


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