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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 2 in C major op. 61 [43:39]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme of Haydn op. 56a [21:49]
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live 29 November 1994, Philharmonie an Gasteig, Munich (Schumann), 16 October 1980, Herkulessaal der Münchner Residenz (Brahms)
Photocopied complete original booklet
EMI CLASSICS 5568492 [68:09]

I have off-the-air tapes of Celibidache conducting these works with the Italian Radio orchestras of, respectively, Rome and Naples. I don’t have precise dates but presume they took place during the 1960s.
In those days Celibidache’s Schumann 2 took 36:11, with individual movements timed at 11:30, 06:43, 10:40 and 07:18. After a grave opening the first movement has a leaping energy. Climaxes blaze euphorically and it is difficult not to be caught up in the sheer whirlwind of emotion. The scherzo again goes with fiery élan while the Adagio is searching yet also passionate. A galvanizing finale caps a performance which, had it been given by the Berlin Philharmonic, might have been THE Schumann 2, rather as Furtwängler’s is THE Schumann 4. Celibidache’s extensive rehearsing pays off with the strings, which sound almost a match for the BPO, not just in articulation and attack but in shading and expression. No amount of rehearsal could duck the issue that the oboist, a competent enough player in himself, simply needed a better instrument. His acid tone compromises both his solos and the wind choir generally. I leave open the question of how good the recording might be if directly mastered from the original tapes, though it has an excessive closeness that’s not likely to change.
No complaints about either the orchestra or the recording in 1994. The single movement timings have now expanded to 13:11, 08:11, 13:03 and 09:14. By this time Celibidache had developed into a great and above all patient unfolder of Bruckner’s symphonic canvases. If the opening of the Schumann does not sound all that different from before, and its fires appear by no means dimmed, the Allegro impresses by its sense of anticipation. We feel that the music is a prelude to the following movements. There is a marvellous sense of steadiness and inevitability as the progress of the music is charted from climax to climax, right across the whole symphony, each one adding a little to the one before yet never becoming an end in itself.
Such an approach may risk sacrificing the sheer immediacy of impact that strikes us in the Roman performance. Nevertheless, Celibidache hones in on the smallest details along the way and ensures that the performance never becomes heavy. The Scherzo now has a Mendelssohnian lightness. Slowish performances of the Finale generally end up sounding stolid and four-square, but this one manages not to. The Adagio is not as overtly passionate as before, but there is an aching beauty to its long-breathed phrasing. Maybe one would ultimately find the later performance the more deeply satisfying one, its sheer wholeness and overall mastery compensating for any loss of fire. I’m afraid I haven’t quite reached that stage yet. The Rome performance seems to me to operate at a higher level of inspiration and this leads me to prefer it, whatever the orchestral and sonic drawbacks. However, I wouldn’t be without the later one either.
The Naples Brahms is a generally severe performance, yet luminous and with finely chiselled phrasing and textures. Apart from a missed horn entry in Variation 3 the response of the Naples orchestra is really quite miraculous considering how badly it could sometimes play. Perhaps the sheer effort of getting such a result from a third-rate band accounts for the extraordinary concentration and tension of the performance.
The Naples version comes in at 20:20, so tempi were not all that different in 1980. The effect in Munich is more relaxed. Variation 3 actually flows a little more while Variation 4, already the slowest I’ve heard in Naples, is slower still. This, though, is a case where the Celibidache method produces a minor revelation since he is able to underline the incidental dissonance of Brahms’s contrapuntal writing. Slowish performances of Variation 6 usually sound pompous; this one sounds light and playful. Variation 8 is fleet and mysterious both times and both performances end with a presentation of the Finale which emphasizes its steady chaconne basis rather than the jubilation other conductors find in it.
I think I would still marginally prefer the Naples performance for its concentration and immediacy. Once again, I find myself querying the decision of Celibidache’s heirs to concentrate on his sonically easier later period. His art in some ways reached its apex in the 1950s and 1960s and I can only hope that the RAI recordings will eventually be explored. However, while I found Celibidache’s later self dispiriting in the coupling of Beethoven 4 and 5 and in his Haydn 92, I have to admit that there are compensations in this case. Those wishing to investigate the Celibidache phenomenon may start here in the confidence that they will find much to reward and fascinate them.
Christopher Howell


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