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DVD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso [11:26]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude ŕ l'Aprés-midi d'un faune [16:04]
Maurice RAVEL
Rhapsodie espagnole [23:00]
Iberia (Images no. 2) [30:00]
Maurice RAVEL
Bolero [20:00]
 Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live 13-14 May 1994, Cologne Music Triennale, Kölner Philharmonie
 IDEALE AUDIENCE 3077968  [101:00]
Experience Classicsonline

On the face of it this is a shortish, even lightweight, programme, but that's without reckoning for late Celibidache. Just looking at some fairly "traditional" alternatives on my shelves, I see that a combination of Cluytens, Monteux and Silvestri would have shaved more than half-an-hour off the timing here. However, it is useless comparing Celibidache with anyone but himself. The phenomenon is isolated and unrepeatable and music-lovers should make up their own minds whether it hooks them or not.
It is very clear at the beginning that Celibidache at around 82 was still totally in command. He has to be helped to the rostrum, where he takes his place on a high stool, his features have filled out since the Dracula-like aesthete who can be seen dancing around in RAI films from the 1960s, his body no longer retains its eel-like wriggle when a dance motion is set up - though a faint trace of this remains. Yet the gestures are still clear and detailed, interspersed with avuncular smiles of encouragement and the odd grimace. "Alborada" and "Prélude" can be ranked with the best Celibidache in the sense that I found my body-clock adjusting to his own timescale and in a sense not noticing the slow tempi - typical "normal" timings for these two pieces would be around 07:30 and 09:30. I maybe thought towards the end that this was a rather stylized, art nouveau faun, but that is not something inherent in the tempi themselves.
Possibly it is a mistake to listen to so much music interpreted in this way at one fell swoop. Maybe if I had heard the "Rhapsodie" first, rather than the other two pieces, my disbelief would have been suspended as it was initially. As it was, I began to feel that Celibidache was slipping into self-parody in the middle movements, though the final part had plenty of colour and vitality. "Traditional" performances of the "Rhapsodie" do not usually exceed 15 minutes.
And then, while middle-aged listeners may tire, elderly conductors may do so too. I got the idea that his gestures in the second part were just that little bit more generalized, that he was following the music rather than leading it. This is something difficult to quantify with performances that have been so extensively rehearsed that all he really needed to do was just to sit there to ensure that all went basically as planned. However, it is notable that he adds a couple of minutes to his "Ibéria" of only a couple of years earlier - see review - and during the last section the tempo gets gradually slower. This suggests that he was at the beginning of the slippery slope towards those late Klemperer performances that weren't really conducted at all.
Even if you resist the idea that he was not getting the results that ideally existed within his mind, the fact remains that the central section is woefully slow and, to my ears at least, the logical connection between the phrases is lost. Aside from the fact that a "normal" performance of "Ibéria" takes about 20 minutes, Celibidache himself took 23:41 in Milan on 24 April 1969 and 22:50 in the context of a complete performance of the three "Images" in Turin on 17 October of the same year. I suggest that the real Celibidache - a mature artist in his mid-fifties - is to be found there.
We know from Ravel's own recording, as well as the famous argument in which Toscanini told him he didn't understand his own music, that he liked "Boléro" slow. This performance might have cured him. It was fascinating at first in its Zen-like stillness, the long, curling tune manicured in every sinuous detail. But how it went on. On 15 May 1955 in Turin, Celibidache himself took 15:09, which is pretty normal. "Orchestration without music" - Ravel's own description - is bad enough without dragging philosophy into the equation. On the other hand, Ravel meant the piece to irritate and it certainly did that. I normally stay the course for at least half the way but Celibidache had me thinking just how often we had the wretched tune through even before the dynamic level starts to rise. Then, as it got louder and louder, this performance more than any other had me thinking "oh God, not again" as each new repetition started. So perhaps Ravel would have been pleased.
In view of the fact that DVDs tend to get into more non-specialist hands than CDs, I think it was irresponsible of Christoph Schlüren, in his accompanying essay, to present Celibidache as a selfless interpreter of the composers he conducted - "he realized just how counterproductive it is to impose one's own personality and its baggage of ideas between the musical context and its acoustical realization" … "Celibidache, in every instant, allowed his musicians to immerse themselves in the worlds of Debussy and Ravel" … "Probably no one has ever performed these works with comparable perfection". Anyone exploring classical music for the first time should be duly warned that Celibidache represents an extreme case of the cult of the conductor and the mystique of the interpreter and his performances should not be approached by listeners who are not already well versed in how the music "normally" sounds. Students of the Celibidache phenomenon, as I have suggested, will find at least the first two items of the programme fully up to their highest expectations.
Christopher Howell 

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