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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le nozze di Figaro: Overture – Rehearsal [716:37] and performance [04:59]*
Le nozze di Figaro: Overture – Rehearsal [06:18] and performance [04:13]**
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache*
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult**
rec. 10 March 1994, Philharmonie am Gasteig, Munich*, October 1974, Abbey Road Studios, London**
EMI CDC 7243 5 99999 2 [10 CDs: 74:11, 76:18, 72:57, 71:43, 75:55, 74:23, 73:48, 71:19, 77:32, 64:01, tt: 732:07]
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I have by now reviewed a number of discs in this series, with music ranging from Haydn to Debussy. I have commented more than once on the paradox that Celibidache, the sworn enemy of the recording studio, spent most of his career working with radio orchestras and others that recorded all their concerts – and often all their rehearsals too – as a matter of course. In reality Celibidache may be one of the most-recorded conductors in history. His career could be reconstructed almost in its entirety from the various radio archives. Of course, only a small amount of this material has so far been released and it is doubtful whether the whole of it ever will be. Nonetheless, we may wonder if Celibidache was affected by the knowledge that his every note was being set down for posterity. What we have here seems in some way, not just a lesson to the orchestra on how to play the overture to "Figaro", but a deliberate lesson to posterity on how to conduct the most complete, most exhaustive possible rehearsal of it.

His work on the opening pianissimo phrase spills over onto the second disc. Tirelessly, he seeks out the timbres, the balances, the minute adjustments of expression within the phrase which, it becomes evident, are not just there in his mind’s ear, but have to be adapted to the peculiar conditions of the hall, the temperature, the humidity, the mood of the moment and the players’ own instruments. All matters, which, as he explains at length, will change again entirely with an audience present, with the result that, at the end of all this fanatical preparation, they will have to improvise at the concert itself.

Celibidache is scrupulous in explaining in detail what he wants the orchestra to do. To most of our common mortal ears the numerous repetitions of the phrase will have ceased to sound remotely different long before he’s halfway through, but his are not common mortal ears and we can witness his gradual satisfaction as he achieves some sort of celestial plane far beyond our earthly ken.

The second CD is much concerned with the exact way to attack the forte outburst in the wake of the whispered opening. By the end of CD 3 he’s reached the second subject and things are beginning to go almost dangerously well. However, there’s no music at all on CDs 4-6. Here Celibidache gives free rein to his vast erudition as he analyzes the significance of the opera in the light of Buddhist and Zen philosophy, oriental transcendental traditions and correct dieting.

The music picks up near the beginning of CD 7. Much of the music in the second half of the overture is identical to what came before, if partly in a different key. A lesser artist would be tempted to consider his work done. Celibidache takes just as much time on the recapitulation as he did before. Indeed, around the middle of CD 9, with the final sprint in sight, tools are downed once more while he explains just why, although the music looks and sounds the same, it is actually totally different, occupying a completely unrelated area of the cosmos. Towards the end of this CD the paternal voice breaks off. After a puzzled silence he repeats his previous sentences in a slightly peeved tone. Holy Moses! He’s made a joke and nobody laughed because the players were all asleep, every man-jack of them, as I was myself. The second time round – I won’t spoil the joke by repeating it here, but it’s actually quite funny – the orchestra, refreshed by its snooze, makes handsome amends. Roars of laughter and cat-whistles of mirth break out, several voices join together to bawl out "Bravuuuuuu Sergiuuuuuu!", the trombonist cavorts around braying glissandos and the football rattle merrily envelops the entire company. In case you wonder what these latter were doing at a rehearsal of the "Figaro" overture, the same programme also included "Till Eugenspiegel" and Celibidache naturally expected all players, for the good of their spiritual development, to attend all rehearsals.

After this jolly interlude the end is easily reached. As so often after rehearsals of this kind, the performance itself is a catalogue of things that go almost but not quite as well as before.

The set comes with full text and translations into four languages in what can hardly be called a booklet, since my copy of "War and Peace" is somewhat slimmer. This timeless, timely and time-consuming tribute to a great conductor is completed by an engaging tit-bit, a Boult recording that got lost. A few minutes were left over at the sessions which produced the coupling of Mozart’s "Haffner" and "Jupiter" Symphonies, but LP side-lengths and a full clutch of repeats meant that "Figaro" never got used. Boult’s rehearsal is only about 50% longer than the performance itself. He repeats the opening phrase a couple of times to get a proper pianissimo, then, having established the trajectory of the performance, he proceeds without comment till nearly the end, when a patch of bad ensemble provokes a barked injunction to "keep it clean". He probably did not even intend to stop the orchestra, but the players collapse in an outburst of giggles while the elderly conductor can be imagined biting his moustache and wondering tetchily what on earth the silly young asses are finding so funny. Or did he do it deliberately? Intentional or not, the rest of the rehearsal and the performance itself go with a swing which had eluded it before.

Christopher Howell

 


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