Sergiu Celibidache in rehearsal and performance
Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony no.9 in E minor, op.95 From the New World (1893) [53:25]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony no.1 in D major, op.25 Classical (1917) – rehearsal [39:14]
Symphony no.1 in D major, op.25 Classical (1917) – performance [17:10]
Münchner Philharmoniker/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. 1988 (Prokofiev) and 1991 (Dvorak), venues not specified
EUROARTS DVD 2066558 [112:57]

Sergiu Celibidache was one of the world’s greatest conductors. He was a genius of sound, blending and balancing it from within the music itself and with a profound knowledge of instrumental frequencies and acoustic science. [From the back cover of this DVD.]

[Eileen] Joyce said that Celibidache was the greatest conductor she had ever worked with - "he was the only one who got inside my soul". [From Richard Davis Eileen Joyce: a portrait (Fremantle, 2001), quoted in Celibidache’s Wikipedia entry.]

The fact that, in the heyday of studio recording from the 1950s to the 1980s, Celibidache (1912-1996) resolutely refused to commit his interpretations to disc means that, like me, many will have built up extensive collections of recordings while never including a single one with his name on it.

In fact, my own first encounter with Celibidache was via the admirable DVD The art of conducting: legendary conductors of a golden era (Teldec/Warner Music Vision 0927 42668 2) where we see him, aged 35, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a fiery, passionate account of Beethoven’s Egmont overture amid, apparently, the ruins of the old Philharmonie concert hall. Watching that, anyone might have predicted the most glittering of careers for him, but instead his decision not to play ball with the recording companies effectively relegated him to the status of something of a cult figure, revered by many of those able to attend his live performances but virtually unknown to others.

This fascinating new DVD presents us with film from the late 1980s and early 1990s. From 1988 we have material that originally featured in a TV documentary by Klaus Lindemann – a record of Celibidache rehearsing the Munich Philharmonic and then performing, to an empty hall and without interruption except for his own occasional vocal interjections, Prokofiev’s Classical symphony. And from 1991 we see the 79 year old leading the same orchestra in a performance of Dvorak’s New World. While I am certainly no physician, to my layman’s eyes these images appears to record a marked deterioration in Celibidache’s physical state in those three intervening years. Surprisingly sprightly in rehearsing and conducting the 1988 Prokofiev, by 1991 he resembles on the podium nothing so much as an inscrutable and comparatively undemonstrative penguin-suited Buddha.

As the quotation from this DVD’s back cover cited above makes clear, Celibidache considered the pure sound of a performance to be of paramount concern. That’s also true for many other conductors, but while their concerns have generally been artistic ones, Celibidache’s were philosophical and related to his specific and rather idiosyncratic theories about the very nature of musical sound and its reproduction. Much of what he had to say on the subject was, unfortunately, rather abstrusely expressed, though he did come up with a strikingly graphic image when he described listening to music on record as the equivalent of sleeping not with the real-life Brigitte Bardot but merely with a picture of her! The Wikipedia entry cited above gives a brief but useful overview of the somewhat complex issues involved.

Listening to and watching the performance of the New World, its most immediately obvious characteristic is its spacious approach. Celibidache’s deliberate tempi make a mighty contribution to building a performance of real, epic grandeur. I recently reviewed a DVD that featured Rudolf Kempe conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a superb – and by no means especially brisk - performance of the same symphony at the Proms in 1975. Comparing times may be a somewhat simplistic exercise but it does, in this case, make its point quite forcefully:

Kempe 1975 Celibidache 1991
I. Adagio – allegro molto 10:59 12:02 [+9.6%]
II. Largo 12:29 17:00 [+36%]
III. Scherzo – molto vivace 7:42 9:25 [+22.3%]
IV. Allegro con fuoco 11:04 14:58 [+35.2%]

As Colin Anderson points out in his useful booklet essay, of big name conductors it is only Leonard Bernstein, in his infamously lethargic 1989 account with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, who stretches out the largo even further than Celibidache, clocking up a staggering total time of 18:22. Although the American conductor’s timings for the other three movements are within conventional limits at 12:30 [I], 7:05 [III] and 12:09 [IV], the wilful, perverse conception that he adopts for that one movement self evidently and grotesquely unbalances the symphonic structure as a whole.

It is not so easy, though, to dismiss Celibidache’s concept, for he is, at least, absolutely consistent in his application of that piled-on grandeur throughout the whole work. As a result, it emerges very much of a piece, if at the same time as something of a curiosity that many listeners may find rather difficult to warm to or, indeed, to like much at all.

They, in particular, may be relieved to know that Celibidache’s performance of Prokofiev’s Classical symphony is, though once again rather individually characterised, not quite so tendentious. The opening allegro, notably lacking much in the way of Mozartean delicacy and skittishness, develops in a rather deliberate and heavy manner. Similarly, the succeeding larghetto and gavotte evolve steadily and surely – the former could easily be the soundtrack to a film of an old train chugging along! - but once again they lack the spirit of rococo delicacy and light-hearted wit that might have added some welcome extra character to the interpretation. While the finale springs a little more effectively into life (or does it just seem to after the dull middle movements?), it is too late by then to redeem a rather run of the mill performance. Prokofiev himself may have considered his op.25 “a rather simple thing”, but the finest interpreters, by using, for example, skilled dynamic control, can elevate even a simple thing into something of far greater significance. There is, sadly, little evidence of any such skill on display here.

Celibidache was well known for demanding large numbers of rehearsals of any orchestra that he was contracted to conduct and more than a third of the DVD’s total time is given over to a filmed rehearsal of the Prokofiev. While the opportunity to see the orchestra taken through its preparatory paces ought to be especially interesting, it is worth pointing out that eavesdropping on a single occasion like this - out of context and in ignorance of the long-term dynamics of the conductor/orchestra relationship - does have the potential to give a seriously misleading impression.

Thus, Celibidache’s comments to the orchestra can sometimes seem rather confusing to an outsider, if not positively at odds with each other. While, for instance, he initially highlights the importance of the “classical style”, later he urges the Munich brass to exemplify “Russia all the way! Very domineering...” Similarly, having stressed the danger of the symphony being played as “loud mouthed … [with] a bit of a paunch”, he subsequently encourages the players to bring out some of what he identifies as its innate vulgarity. At another point he asks them to play “with lots of fun”, though it is hard to see that that instruction produces any discernable effect whatsoever.

In sum, this is a DVD that is likely to appeal to those who are already familiar with, and appreciative of, Celibidache’s art and characteristic sound. While the conductor’s fanatical admirers will doubtless be delighted to have an opportunity to see him in action, many others, I fear, will be inclined to share Norman Lebrecht’s more cynical verdict (The maestro myth: great conductors in pursuit of power [London, 1991], p. 233): “Some worship him as a Furtwängler-figure but the truth about Celi is less unsullied. He is a showman, plain and simple, with an eccentric, though effective, mode of self-projection.”

Rob Maynard

A fascinating new DVD.