A few years ago I reviewed a considerable number of Celibidache’s
late Munich recordings on EMI (review
His slightly less late Stuttgart recordings were taken up by
I expressed the feeling that, for the finest Celibidache, it
may be necessary to sacrifice something of sound quality and
investigate his Italian period. In the 1950s and 1960s he was
already a mature – nay, great – artist, but his interpretations
avoided the later pitfalls of grotesque self-parody. Given that
the sound itself was more problematic my hope was – and remains
– that we will one day have official masterings of the best
of this material.
IDIS, for all its official-sounding name, has collected quite
a bit of critical flak for its historical masterings. Nothing
is revealed about the source of these recordings. Indeed, the
booklet occupies 8 pages – of which three are blank – to tell
us little more than you can read in the above header. In the
absence of the RaiTrade logo, I presume IDIS have not licensed
the original tapes from RAI. Any more recent digital remastering
that RAI may have made or broadcast would not be in the public
domain. The default assumption, therefore, is that somebody
taped these off the air at least fifty years ago. In which case
I can only congratulate him on the excellence of his equipment.
For their date, these recordings are splendid, convincingly
capturing the dynamic range and colours of two extraordinary
interpretations. The Franck, in mono, was new to me. I already
had my own off-the-air version of the Tchaikovsky, somewhat
opaque and in mono only. Here we have quite vivid stereo, an
improvement in every way. So, sidestepping the issues raised
in this paragraph, we can hear these performances in sound which
does not sell them short.
What of the orchestras? The RAI orchestras have made a patchy
impression over the years. With Celibidache at the helm, both
bands are notable for discipline, blend and sensitive phrasing.
The consistent vibrato of the wind – beautifully controlled
in this instance – lends both Franck and Tchaikovsky the sort
of piquant quality we normally expect from French and Russian
orchestras of the period. The pinched sound of the Turin trumpet’s
narrow-bore, military-style instrument at the climax of the
Tchaikovsky will not please those used to Philharmonia rotundity,
but again, we hear something similar on Russian discs too, and
the playing as such is good. So any fears that Celibidache’s
vision may be impaired by orchestral fallibility can be set
And any fears that Celibidache might “Brucknerize” poor Franck
out of existence can be allayed by just looking at the timings.
Compared with the exceptionally dramatic, forward-moving Boult
and Munch from about the same period, Celibidache adds just
a minute to the first movement. Many recent conductors have
added more. In the other two movements his timings are similar
The first movement introduction impresses by its grading of
dynamics and its feeling of inexorable growth. Its repetition
in a higher key is justified by an extra tension. This repetition
can sound gratuitous in lesser hands. The allegro is superbly
vital, the very detailed phrasing combined with surging fervour.
The middle movement casts its mournful charm at a serenely flowing
tempo while the finale is often galvanic.
There are two points of exceptional interest. Firstly, under
Celibidache, the symphony’s much-criticized structure sounds
entirely natural, each episode flowing into the next like a
vast, but disciplined, improvisation. Secondly, Celibidache
continually mixes the sound, giving the inner parts and lines
a life of their own, every now and then bringing into relief
small details so that nothing is ever repeated in exactly the
A performance to stand at the summit of Franck interpretation,
then. My only reservation about recommending it beyond historically-minded
collectors is that Munch and Boult – and probably Monteux, which
I don’t know – provide equally blazing conviction in stereo.
And Janowski, one of the few present-day conductors who appears
to believe wholeheartedly in the work, provides similar conviction
in state-of-the-art sound.
A “typical” timing of Romeo and Juliet comes in around 20 minutes,
so Celibidache in 1960 was beginning to enter his time-stretching
phase. Nevertheless, the results are enthralling. The introduction
maintains a high level of uneasy expectation. As in the Franck,
Celibidache continually mixes and remixes the orchestral strands
to create a kaleidoscope of colour. The street-fighting, with
razor-sharp rhythmic control and definition, is terrifically
exciting even if less headlong than some. In the later stages
of the love music I felt that a certain decadent lassitude was
invading the music. The thought came to me, but only when it
was all over, that, while this performance enriches the music
in many ways, the sheer passionate sweep of some other interpretations
is missing. The scenes seem in a way stylized, as though we
are looking at a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Romeo and Juliet’s
tragedy rather than experiencing their emotions directly in
the raw. I don’t mean this as a criticism, I intend only to
describe the sort of experience the performance provides.
I must say, too, that it’s some time since I’ve been so completely
gripped by this piece from beginning to end. So those who have
been diffident about the later Celibidache may find this disc
provides a good point of entry to his world.