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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer [33: 11]
Images pour orchestre: 2. Ibéria [27:46]
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live, 13 September 1992 (La Mer), 22 September 1992 (Ibéria), Philharmonie am Gasteig, Munich
Authorized CDR of deleted EMI material with photocopied complete original booklet
ARKIVMUSIC EMI CLASSICS CDC 7243 5 56520 2 7 [65:04]

32 years earlier, Celibidache’s "La Mer" was only slightly more expansive than the breezy Munch or the restless Markevich:

La Mer





Munch (Boston)





Markevich (Lamoureux 1959)





Celibidache (Milan RAI 29.1.1960)





Celibidache (Munich 1992)





The Milan performance is a wonderful combination of poetry, élan, voluptuousness and sheer elemental fire. To have achieved such a play of timbre and balance from a basically third rate ensemble is quite miraculous. The only thing you could say against it is that it is not intrinsically dissimilar from the other best performances one has heard. Whatever one’s reactions, the 1992 performance is something else again.

It is also a demonstration of the misleading nature of timings. In all truth, it doesn’t feel so very much slower. The perspectives are longer, the horizons more distant, the waves roll with an Atlantic swell rather than the sharp breakers of La Manche. But once one has adjusted, the waves play, the winds blow, the storms rage no less than before.

It is a supreme demonstration of how time and tempo in music are only relative terms. The time is the space which contains the nuance and expression, while the tempo is the rate of progress from one musical beat to the next which allows this nuance and expression to emerge. In other words, the greater the nuance and expression, the slower the tempo is likely to be, the greater the time slot needed to accommodate it. What is created is a sort of time-stretching, since the actual music we hear has the same number of bars and beats whatever the tempo.

All this is only applicable to musical artists who are also creators. Most performers are interpretative artists – even very good ones – and they need to play by the rules. To hear "La Mer" stretched in this way by a conductor who did not arrive at these results by a visionary recreation of the nuances and expression in the score would be unthinkable. I would suggest, too, that Celibidache did not purposely arrive at slower tempi than those of other conductors. He just went on exploring timbres and nuances and this was the result.

But even Celibidache could overdo it. In the context of a complete performance of "Images" in Turin in 1969 his "Ibéria" was already somewhat more expansive than the unbuttoned but atmospheric Munch or even the fairly plain-speaking Monteux – not the most magical of that conductor’s recordings. Earlier the same year he had been slightly more ruminative still in a performance of just "Ibéria" in Milan.






Munch (Boston)





Monteux (LSO)





Celibidache (Milan 24.4.1969)*

Celibidache (Turin 17.10.1969)*

Celibidache (Munich 1992)





* Unfortunately my home-made CDRs do not have separate tracks for the three movements

The outer movements still have plenty of swagger in 1992. Obviously the issue is the central movement. The "Perfumes of the night" waft in and out with considerable atmosphere and for most of the distance a gentle lilt is maintained. But time, like elastic, will only stretch so far without breaking and there are times when the music is dangerously close to immobility. Maybe if you were actually there among the audience it was different. Here we return again to Celibidache’s own conviction that his performances were not suitable for gramophone reproduction.

So in this case the earlier performances seem preferable, at least on disc. And even "La Mer", compelling and fascinating as it is, can perhaps be fully appreciated only against the backdrop of a knowledge of how Celibidache conducted this music in earlier years. So once again I find myself calling for a reissue, properly mastered from the original tapes, of the best of Celibidache’s RAI material. The Milan "La Mer" and Turin "Images" would make a fine pairing. It is a sobering thought that such a disc, despite the inclusion of the other "Images" – "Gigues" and "Rondes de Printemps" – would be slightly shorter (64:19) than the present one.

Christopher Howell


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