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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Op. 68 (1876) [45:58]
Wiener Symphoniker/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live, 30 October 1952, Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria

Experience Classicsonline

This live 1952 recording of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 is conducted by the Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996). It seems appropriate to provide some background to the complex context that surrounded Celibidache around the time of this recording. He became a star in the classical music world virtually overnight. In December 1945 Celibidache, aged only 33 and blessed with matinee idol looks, was plucked from music school to succeed Leo Borchard as the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The Berlin Philharmonic was almost certainly the world’s most famous orchestra as right through the Second World War they served as the cultural flagship of Hitler’s Third Reich. Wilhelm Furtwängler who had been the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal conductor from 1922 left the orchestra in February 1945 fleeing for his life to Switzerland. Both Borchard and Celibidache as ‘intermediary’ appointments had been in effect keeping the seat warm until Furtwängler returned to his principal conductorship.
After his de-Nazification process in December 1946 Furtwängler, who was highly popular with the majority of the players, was cleared to return to the Berlin Philharmonic and began conducting again in May 1947. Celibidache was a guest conductor of several orchestras and his debut with the Wiener Symphoniker was given at the Konzerthaus, Vienna in April 1949. At this time Celibidache was in the midst of a Berlin Philharmonic power struggle. His relationship with the players of the self-governing Berlin Philharmonic quickly began to sour as he started to interfere in artistic and executive affairs, aggravated relationships with the players owing to his erratic and antagonistic behaviour and made excessive rehearsal demands. In addition his numerous guest conductor appearances with other orchestras became another problem area. Soon Celibidache had another important rival to contend with as the Karajan became a regular guest and began to gain the respect of both orchestra and audience. Consequently Celibidache’s position became increasingly untenable. The inevitable happened in 1954 and a disaffected Celibidache broke his ties with the orchestra.
The present performance of Brahms 1 was recorded by the American broadcaster Red-White-Red at one of Celibidache’s guest conducting concerts that had become such a bone of contention back in Berlin.
I’m sure that the re-mastering process has made significant improvements to the sound quality of this Wiener Symphoniker recording. Nonetheless I was left wondering just how much of the sound quality was responsible for clouding the instrumental detail and reducing the general impact of the playing. I was not entirely convinced by the weight of the timpani thuds that open the first movement Un poco sostenuto - Allegro; they can sound so solemn and threatening if heard at their finest. At point 2.08 (track 1) the oboe playing of the beautiful rising motif came across as rather recessed and is not heard anywhere near to its best advantage. Throughout this movement I would have preferred to have heard more expressive power and nervous energy. In truth no one has managed to provide an opening of such raw power approaching that of Klemperer in his wonderful 1956/57 EMI recording with the Philharmonia in the Kingsway Hall. 

The Wiener Symphoniker give a fine lyrical account of the E major Andante sostenuto. The burnished autumnal feel of the countryside is almost palpable. It conjures up a scene on the edge of a tranquil and shadowy forest whilst anticipating the ominous onset of inclement weather. Owing to the problematic sound the solo violin sounds uneven and a touch vinegary unable to show its real beauty. In addition the solo oboe doesn’t stand out as much as I would have liked. Right from the swaying opening measures gracious lyrical melodies abound in the short Un poco allegretto e grazioso. Celibidache manages to convey a mood of joyous contentment together with a pleasing warmth. Sadly the opening clarinet solo is difficult to hear and loses most of its pastoral colour. This is fresh music of the great outdoors evocative of early morning dew to a backdrop of Alpine scenery. In the final Adagio - Allegro non troppo ma con brio it is as if the listener is lying on a verdant bank watching the tones and shapes of a changing sky. Here Celibidache builds a mood weighty, sombre and tragic. Probably the highpoint is the great C major theme which unfolds with real affection.
Celibidache refused to make records or to allow any recordings of his concerts. Since his death a number of live archive recordings have been officially issued by permission of his family. Not surprisingly I have come across only a modest number dating from the early post war years so it is good to have another to add to the catalogue. Although re-mastered the present disc has some sound quality problems and what we are left with reduces the quality of performance compared to the finest versions. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this and it serves as a useful historical document if not the most worthy testament to this talented yet controversial conductor.  

Michael Cookson 

Masterwork Index: Brahms 1

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