Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.7 in E major (1881-83, 1885)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sergiu Celibidache
Also includes the documentary The Triumphant Return.
rec. Schauspielhaus, Berlin, 31 March-1 April 1992
Directed by Rodney Greenberg.
Documentary directed Wolfgang Becker.
Aspect ratio 16:9; NTSC Region code 0
EUROARTS 2011408 DVD [90:00 (concert); 54:00 (documentary)]

This is very special. Sergiu Celibidache returned to Berlin in 1992 after an absence of some 38 years to conduct a concert performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No.7 with the Berlin Philharmonic. This was an orchestra that he had been principal conductor of from 1945 to 1952 when he was in his early thirties. Celibidache shunned publicity and generally disliked the recording studio but was happy enough to allow his concerts and rehearsals to be recorded and archived for posterity. He was a great musician and also a perfectionist. He went to great lengths to achieve what were, to his ears, perfect performances - or at least, as perfect as humanly possible. His demands for extensive rehearsal periods for every concert in order to meet these artistic demands are legendary. This is the only video of him conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in concert and as such it has real historical significance.
The documentary, The Triumphant Return includes interviews with former BPO players from the Celibidache era. They all talk very touchingly about his genius and the way he inspired the orchestra to produce exceptional results. There is also sadness about the way he moved on under a cloud never to return until 1992. These interviews clearly demonstrate the magnetic effect Celibidache had on the orchestra and it’s also clear that he was “one of them” - helping to unload instruments from coaches and staying close to his players as a friend as well as a leader. It’s all very touching. There are some short clips of the young conductor in action soon after the war including an extract from the Brahms violin concerto with Menuhin as soloist. Interspersed with this footage we are treated to extensive excerpts from the rehearsal of Bruckner 7. I’m not sure whether or not this way of rehearsing every single note at the microscopic level is very pleasurable for an orchestra but Celibidache knows what he wants and he makes sure he gets it. The first two bars of the symphony are repeated time after time for 15 minutes until he is happy. Goodness knows how long the rehearsals took but that’s not the issue here. The issue is that we are seeing a great craftsman at work cajoling “his” orchestra to produce everything he is looking for. I personally find the whole thing incredibly informative and involving. This is a fine documentary, beautifully produced. There’s just one annoying niggle - the sound engineer should have insisted that the maestro removed his bracelet prior to filming. It jingles away with a mind of its own and some will find it distracting.
The concert itself is almost a bonus to a documentary to which I will regularly return. Before going any further I will admit straightaway that Bruckner’s work isn’t something that I particularly admire or warm to in general. Like many others I find it all somewhat thick sounding and longwinded. It seems to rely on huge vertical blocks followed by punctuation marks. The absence of horizontal development leaves me a bit cold. Even the fast passages sound heavy-footed but this is all subjective. I’ve now probably upset all the devout Brucknerians who hold the master in esteem so I better quickly move on. As Bruckner 7s go I actually enjoyed this performance immensely. The orchestra produces a fabulous sound especially in the lower register. The string playing is just exceptional and Celibidache manages to coax some stupendous cantabile phrasing out of them. Everything flows and the balance allows every voice to come through. It’s all there - clarity of articulation, beauty of sound and a real grasp of the architecture. The orchestra is clearly inspired by the conductor’s vision and there is a definite sense of occasion. The audience are blown away by it all and rightly so. Technically the camera-work doesn’t get in the way. We are allowed to sit back, watch and listen. There are good overall shots of the complete orchestra and regular close-ups of the conductor but not too close. Thank goodness we don’t have to suffer distracting fast-moving cuts and close-ups of violin players’ fingers. It’s the sort of quality you see during the Proms TV coverage. The sound is fine. This well worth buying.  

John Whitmore 

A great documentary and concert from a genius of the podium.