Symphony was one of my teenage infatuations.
I was instantly bowled over by the soaring
opening, majestic and at the same time
ecstatic, with trumpets soon glinting
through the texture like shafts of sunlight
on the Rhine. I have never really fallen
out of love with it, yet as time went
on the conviction grew that no performance
or recording recaptured for me the thrill
of that first one, played by the "International
Symphony Orchestra" under René
Leibowitz and hidden away in a Reader’s
Digest box of LPs in the my old school
music room. Only quite recently did
I find it can now be obtained from Chesky
(CD 96) and the performance seemed
to me as enthralling as ever: THE Schumann
3, just as Furtwängler is THE Schumann
Late Celibidache is
obviously a lot slower. His first movement
is 10:49 compared with Leibowitz’s 09:11
and I must say the difference sounds
greater still. The remarkable thing
is that Celibidache, by conjuring up
awesome yet golden and never clotted
sonorities and maintaining the swing
of the syncopated rhythms, achieves
much more of the soaring, elated quality
of the music than one would have supposed
possible at a slower tempo. Could I,
in time, come to find Celibidache so
incident-packed that faster readings
seem to skate over the surface? Maybe,
though it hasn’t happened yet.
second movement (Celibidache 07:18,
Leibowitz 06:16) has an adorable, lazy
lilt, and I must say the central section
sounds so right at this tempo that it
had me rethinking my reactions to the
The third movement
is simply marked "Nicht schnell"
(not fast). Most conductors take the
view that this implies it shouldn’t
be slow either and treat it as a delicate
intermezzo. André Cluytens (Milan,
date unknown to me; he also set down
a version with the BPO for EMI) offers
a typical timing of 04:20. Leibowitz
here goes against his general penchant
for swift tempi and offers a romantic,
songful 06:25 which has always seemed
to me to get so much more out of the
music. Celibidache goes even further
in this direction, his 07:21 finding
an intimate, almost religious depth
of feeling. I didn’t find it hung fire.
movement is almost double the length
of Leibowitz’s (08:08 against 04:43).
He takes us into Parsifal territory.
It’s an incredible piece of orchestral
control. I’d hate to hear such a tempo
done by a conductor unable to build
it up but Celibidache has the tension
rising inexorably right through.
The finale seems very
slow at first, well-sprung though it
is. It takes 06:26 compared with Leibowitz’s
05:08. Here too, though, it’s amazing
how much exaltation the music retains.
When the quotation from the fourth movement
arrives towards the end, too, it emerges
as majestic and triumphant while it
often sounds hustled or else tempts
vulgar souls – no names! – into a portentous
ritardando. So at the end of the day
you have to wonder if the tempo is not
right after all.
I’m not yet ready to
switch my allegiance from Leibowitz
to Celibidache but I am glad to have
a real alternative that I suspect will
convince me more and more with time.
The Fourth Symphony
is less controversial and perhaps less
remarkable. The introduction is predictably
grave, leading to a Lebhaft that is
"on the slow side of normal"
rather than "slower than normal".
The phrasing cunningly retains a Mendelssohnian
lightness while the climaxes blaze euphorically
in spite of the slowish tempo. I miss
the sense we get from Furtwängler
that the music is being created – with
all the lava-flow of a volcano – there
on the spot before our ears. However,
Furtwängler’s Schumann 4 (DG) is
famously one of the greatest records
ever made of anything and Celibidache
holds up pretty well against it.
No quarrels with the
expansive yet somehow not self-indulgent
Romanze. It has great inner warmth.
The Scherzo has a gutsy vigour at another
"slow side of normal" tempo
with a tenderly expressed trio. The
proto-Wagnerian transition to the finale
is terrific; not even Furtwängler
surpassed this for tension-building.
A yell from the rostrum only adds to
the excitement. I was afraid Celibidache
might spoil the effect by breaking into
a too-slow finale but here again he’s
just "on the slow side of normal"
and drives the symphony home with plenty
of fire and a terrific final prestissimo.
I don’t find, though, that in this symphony
he has so much to tell us that we didn’t
already know from other fine performances,
above all Furtwängler’s.
I have often complained
about the Celibidache heirs’ decision
to concentrate on his sonically easier
late recordings rather than those of
his Italian period (1950s and 1960s)
when his fires were at their peak. Back
in the days when copyright in Italy
lasted only 20 years, Cetra had an LP
set of the Schumann Symphonies, but
I have never heard his Italian versions
of the Third and Fourth. Since his First
(Milan 1968) and Second (Rome, I don’t
know the date) are fierily impressive,
I hope we will one day have the opportunity
to make a proper comparison. In the
meantime, get this if you’ve already
got the Leibowitz Third. You’ll find
an unusual yet stimulating interpretation
that might convince you more than you
expect. Or, if the Celibidache phenomenon
interests you, this disc should give
you plenty to think about.