Sergiu Celibidache on DVD
In Rehearsal and Performance (1965 and 1982).
see end of review for disc contents
TV Format NTSC 4:3, Sound Dolby Digital 2.0, Region Code 0
EUROARTS DVD 2059118 [5 DVDs boxed together]
Back in October 2007 I reviewed one of these DVDs, the Strauss and Rimsky ‘in rehearsal and performance’ disc. It’s slightly changed artwork colour since then, but is still available singly, and still carries the same catalogue number. Now, however, it can also be found available as part of this slip-cased set. I’ll reprise my comments here, but be briefer about the remaining four DVDs.
Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov
With regard to this disc, admirers will find much to interest them in this DVD for whilst parts of it have appeared before, such as portions of the Till rehearsal - it’s in part two of the Art Of Conducting - the fuller context brings greater rewards. The rehearsal was given in 1965 and was captured in black and white film.
It’s notable for the richness of Celibidache’s verbal pointers. He wears slacks and a jumper. I noted down some of the more enlightening sallies; and they come thick and fast. “Too much bow” is perhaps a conductorial commonplace, though as often as not it’s too little bow that’s the problem not too much. Not for Celi in Strauss. “Vibratissimo” is a vibrant usage and certainly gets the strings working as does his encouraging “very intelligent” to the first violins before adding - a master of psychology - that he’d like them to repeat the passage because they weren’t together. Some of his comments to the string section are the most revealing of his methodology and show one how he liked to build up the string sound. He’s insistent that the bowing of the second violins and violas is tied to the firsts. At one point he steps off the rostrum to discuss technical matters with the orchestra’s leader leading to an outburst of relieved schoolboy chatter in the ranks. Then again how could you resist - but how to put into effect? - his commanding cry of “Remain Epic, gentlemen.”
So whilst remaining epic and displaying the requisite intelligence - for string tone, balance - one needs to be careful over rhythmic matters under Celi’s watchful eye. He’s solicitous though, adding “I don’t want to hustle the horns” whilst admonishing the basses to “work together.” He rightly stops the increasingly flat horn section and comes down hard on “spaghetti” bowing - he can be very funny when he wants to be - and all the while he mentions part of the Til narrative to the orchestra to encourage and sharpen their musico-dramatic sense. I certainly can’t imagine too many of his contemporaries telling their orchestra “metal strings are no good - smells of burning.” He’s clearly after a more burnished sound though he doesn’t need to spell it out. He dances like a dervish too when the rhythm begins to hot up though things get deliriously carried away when after giving an upbeat nothing happens - and conductor and band dissolve into delighted laughter. Though of course he remains in control to the end, admonishing the players not to get sentimental. These camera shots are well filmed, generally from the behind the back desk of the first fiddles. The subsequent concert performance features a little shaky camera work but is otherwise unobtrusive; in black and white again obviously.
The Scheherazade concert footage comes from nearly twenty years later and is in colour. The saturnine dervish has aged into a portly, grey haired seignior. It’s a pleasure to see him smile with pleasure at the climaxes, as it is to see his shimmering left hand encouraging more string tone. The performance is slow though not as slow as it was to become but also full of beautiful curvature and colour. The camera set-up is conventional and relatively expert. But the same can’t be said of the sound, which is annoyingly opaque and will dampen your ardour. You can hear it in much better sound on DG 445141-2.
Despite these caveats the longish Strauss rehearsal will merit a place on your shelf. It is an interesting character study - of control, relaxation, terseness and more floridly encouraging praise. Psychologically it’s a rewarding half an hour plus - and the performance shows the translation of those ideas and ideals in fine fashion.
Celi was joined by a favoured colleague, Daniel Barenboim, for performances of both Brahms piano concertos in 1991. The First was recorded at the Stadthalle Erlangen, whilst the Second was at the Philharmonie in Munich.
By this stage the conductor was walking slowly and being gently hauled up to the rostrum where he presided over proceedings sitting on a chair. As might be expected in the D minor, the maestoso elements of the music are intensely explored. The measured and monumental approach is imbued with a considerable degree of rubato, something with which the pianist is in full accord. Barenboim’s metrical fluidity dovetails perfectly with Celibidache’s own view. But it’s also noticeable how watchful Barenboim is. It’s clear that he can’t always make out Celibidache’s (minimal) cues, and so he strains physically to try to catch Celi cueing the winds at one point. He also looks at him around the piano lid. One feels that Barenboim would have been more comfortable if ensemble could have been ensured rather than being guessed at.
The slow movement is rapt and expressive, and of a piece. Once again the soloist is keen to ensure ensemble, to which end he follows the clarinets and oboes. By the finale Celi, with a minimum of gesture, has remained cool, but Barenboim is drenched in sweat beneath the bright lights. Excellent camera angles ensure that we witness the full complement of drama of the performance. But it is slow, slow, slow.
The Second Concerto seems more closely miked than the companion concerto and the sound slightly less veiled too. Camera work is once again fine, though we also get the by now standard shots of the pianist, face on, through the raised piano lid. There’s a camera in the body of the orchestra which we only see very occasionally. Yet however occasional it may be, it still jars every time. The director delays a close up of the cello principal is his slow movement solo until, in effect, the reprise, something I found frustrating. Yet again, given the positioning of the conductor’s chair we can see, quite graphically, just how problematic is contact between soloist and conductor, no matter how experienced they both might be. This is another fine performance, though it’s received more coolly than the companion concerto. Barenboim smiles appreciatively at the principal cellist, and Celibidache adds his own applause for the performance.
Dvořák and Prokofiev
One of the most disconcerting things about the performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony (1991) is that one of the violinists looks just like Dvořák. This amusing detail was clearly not lost on director János Darvas because he spends quite a number of his relatively few close ups on this particular string player. If you don’t know what the Czech composer looked like then this won’t trouble you. If you do, then it will raise a smile. It looks like some weird shift in the space/time continuum has occurred.
This is late Celi; beefy, bulked up, bronzed, edging to the corpulent. There’s quite elastic phrasing in the Largo, but the folk rhythms have been pretty well flattened out elsewhere, and I can’t say I got much from the military rhythm in the finale.
Prokofiev’s Classical symphony is a different kettle of fish. This was recorded in rehearsal and then in performance in 1988. One can learn a lot from this rehearsal in particular. A much trimmer conductor stands for this. He spends much of the time concentrating on the strings, barely bothering to correct anyone else. Citing him doesn’t really convey how funny he could be: thus the admonition; ‘Cosy bow stroke for pensioners - use the original bowing’ doesn’t sound sneering at all in context. But because he doesn’t use a score, the concertmaster constantly reminds him of the rehearsal number, which can slow things up. The rehearsal is a convincing exploration of the gradual refining of a string section, also of the malleable suggestiveness of some of his stories. He tells the orchestra a little narrative about one scene in the Symphony. It seems to work. Only once does he address a player by name and that’s when he talks to the principal flute, called Max. ‘I miss the belch’ he says. Max duly obliges by roughing up his articulation. All this is in German of course, but the subtitles are very effective. The actual performance is played in civvies. Celi sashays his way through the finale, having a high old time.
Schumann and Tchaikovsky
Barenboim is back, once again in 1991, and this time with concertos by Schumann and Tchaikovsky. He plays the former in the same location he’d performed Brahms First. The performance also adheres to the same flexibility and expansiveness. But power and lyricism are held in fine balance, and the camera direction captures pianistic nuances with fidelity. Oddly, Barenboim stares out into the audience for some considerable time before launching the slow movement, but one can’t pick up what the interruption or distraction was. His playing here and throughout is both fluent and sensitive, and garners very warm applause.
Similar traits imbue the Tchaikovsky. This is a really fine performance, full of bravura but also a sense of rich colour and imaginative characterisation. Virtuosity is not paraded for its own sake, the music emerging both dramatic and exciting. But the excitement isn’t generated mechanically, it’s produced incrementally and architecturally. If you can’t quite see Barenboim in the role as the heroic pianist astride Tchaikovsky’s steed, pay heed to this outstanding performance. Fortunately it receives non-gimmicky, resolute camera work. Once again co-ordination between conductor and soloist is a slight concern but not, here, a real worry.
Ravel and Debussy
These items were filmed live at the Cologne Philharmonie on two days during May 1994. Celibidache was to die two years later. By now he was very frail, and was slowly led onto the stage, where he receives a huge ovation. His performances of French music have considerable detail and clarity. Indeed, they may well be considered rather objectified. Celibidache had a maverick view, saying that no French conductor could conduct French music. This would have come as news to, say, Monteux and Munch, to take just two of the eminent deceased. It might also have come as news to Cluytens, Michel Plasson, and Georges Prêtre. All three can conduct French music far better than Celibidache. His Bolero lacks power, and there’s a strange lack of atmosphere in Alborada del gracioso. But despite my being out of sympathy with his performances, there’s no doubting the control he exerts over his orchestra, or that they give every ounce for him.
It’s a shame to end on a lower note, given the richness to be encountered throughout this set of DVDs. Often I find concert footage ephemeral and ask questions of its historical significance as well as musical excellence. Given that one plays DVDs far less often than one hopes, there must be something about them to compel enthusiasm. I’d happily recommend the box set for the Celi lover, but if you want me to rank them from 1 to 5 in order of desirability (1 being most desirable), given their separate availability, it goes like this:
1. Strauss and Rimsky
2. Schumann and Tchaikovsky
4. Prokofiev and Dvořák
5. Ravel and Debussy
If the New World had been better I’d have pushed that disc above the Brahms.
Admirers will find much to interest them.
see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf of the Strauss/Rimsky-Korsakov release and Rob Maynard of the Prokofiev/Dvorak release
Masterwork Index Till Eulenspiegel Brahms concerto 1 Brahms concerto 2 Schumann concerto Dvorak 9 Prokofiev 1 Tchaikovsky concerto 1
Disc 1 [104:00]
Nikolai RIMSKY- KORSAKOV
Also available separately as 2060368
Disc 2 [111:00]
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
Daniel Barenboim, Munchner Philharmoniker
Also available separately as 2066688
Disc 3 [114:00]
Symphony No. 9
Symphony No. 1
Also available separately as 2066558
Disc 4 [81:00]
Piano Concerto No. 1
Daniel Barenboim, Munchner Philharmoniker
Also available separately as 2066588
Disc 5 [101:00]
Bolero; Alborada del gracioso; Rhapsodie espagnole
Prelude e l’Apres-midi d’un faune; Iberia
Also available separately as 3077968