INKPOT#61 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MUSSORGSKY Pictures At An Exhibition. TCHAIKOVSKY Romeo & Juliet Overture. Munich PO/Celibidache (EMI)
PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture after ShakespeareMODEST MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel)
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by SERGIU CELIBIDACHE (1912-1996)
EMI Classics Celibidache Edition 5-56516-2
Live recordings from January 1992 (Tchaikovsky) and September 1993 (Mussorgsky). Performed at the Philharmonie am Gasteig, the Munich Philharmonic’s residence which was opened on 10 November 1985.
by Soo Kian Hing
When I was looking for a recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, what first caught my eye in this disc was the astonishingly long timing for the final section “The Great Gate of Kiev” (6’53”). Most other orchestras stop short at roughly 5 minutes. Having no knowledge whatsoever of Celibidache at the time, this piqued my curiosity and since then this recording has become THE recording of both Russian works for me.
Tchaikovsky wrote his Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet after the famous play by William Shakespeare, in which two “star-crossed” lovers are separated by the animosity between their respective clans, deeply rooted in centuries of bloodshed, and destined to end in a bloody tragedy where both commit suicide in the name of love. Based on the same themes of love, despair, passion and tragedy, Tchaikovsky wove a fantasy of almost half-an-hour duration.
The piece introduces the theme quietly with a chorale on the clarinet and woodwinds. As the strings enter to broaden the tapestry of sound, Celibidache obtains a layered effect, note by note, on the combination of strings and woodwinds. When the flutes finally hit the high note in the minor chords accompanied by arpeggios on the harp, the listener is brought proper into the timeless realm of Romeo and Juliet. The opening theme is expanded upon, with still more layering of notes upon each other, creating a chordal effect reminiscent of the still air of an evening, perhaps an evening when the two lovers secretly met in the garden. The languid pace at which Celibidache takes this piece dramatically increases the scope of orchestral colours, transporting the listener effortlessly into the very heart of the music.
The stillness is broken by the entry of an animated motif on the tympani and brass, and a section follows whereby, it seems, Romeo (the strings) and Juliet (the upper woodwinds) are separated and call to each other, to no avail. Descent into the depths of despair (a lengthy bass note) is followed by the soothing love theme, aided in its various reprises by an oscillating horn. This very prominent horn voice that Celibidache coaxes from the depths of the orchestra boosts the forlorn and forbidden passion of the lovers, the horn being a mid-range instrument that is itself often buried within the brighter strings and woodwinds of the symphony orchestra.
The very same horns come forth again, sounding the mighty cry of fate trying to separate the two lovers, passing to the bright trumpets and finally to the orchestra tutti. After the brief intervention quietens down, the love theme enters again, this time greatly impassioned, with full orchestra and the horns fiercely pealing their two-note motif, just as the lovers pledge to be together against all the odds of the world. The warm string romance intermingles with the authoritative voice of cruel fate, but after an embittered battle, fate ultimately wins and the timpani softly pounds out the fatal end of the tragedy.
Another chorale appears in the woodwinds, expanding into a major-key epilogue, reminding the listener that all is not lost; true love would prevail in the end, affirmed strongly by the confident timpani roll and optimistic final chords, which, in Celibidache’s hands, become a deafening roar of triumph.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a collection of ten pieces inspired by a memorial exhibition of water colours and drawings by the architect Victor Hartmann, written one year after the artist’s death in 1873. Originally written for solo piano, the piece was orchestrated by Ravel and this is the version heard here.
The Promenade starts off the stroll through the paintings. This well-known theme is repeated at various points in the piece to symbolise the composer (or the listener) walking through the exhibition. Although marked “Allegro giusto”, Celibidache certainly takes his time to enjoy the amble through the entrance to the exhibition, providing a stately prologue for the musical offerings to follow.
The Gnome (Gnomus) becomes an elusive, shadowy figure under Celibidache’s baton, and instead of darting and tottering about as might have been otherwise interpreted, the dwarf materialises and shrinks away in a ghostly manner, faces the listener for an ominous few phrases, then vaporises with a menacing scuttle of feet.
The Old Castle is an Italian castle of the Middle Ages, in front of which a minstrel sings his song. Celibidache slowly paints the castle, part by part, complete with eroded stone walls, faded tapestries, and an eerie sense of emptiness about the abandoned compound. The Promenade then brings the listener to the Tuileries garden in Paris, the unhurried tempo depicting the tender play of a crowd of nurses and children in an alley.
Bydlo, a Polish ox-cart, lumbers by heavily. One can almost hear the wheels creaking under the extreme weight the conductor puts on the cart. However, the piece shows no sign of strain, but instead approaches steadily and brushes tangibly by the listener in a fortissimo passage, then fades and disappears into the horizon.
The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is a drawing designed by Hartmann for a picturesque scene in a ballet. It is a fluffy number in which Celibidache makes little birds prance delicately all over the place; this contrasts starkly with the next picture, that of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. They are two Jews, one rich (depicted by an aristocratic florish on the trumpet) and the other poor (grovelling in the basses). Their voices come together after each states his presence, making for an interesting conversation (or rather argument). Under Celibidache they try to converse but their disparate backgrounds keep them apart; yet there is no evidence of forcefulness in the playing.
The Market Place at Limoges is a busy place packed with activity. This scene depicts French women quarreling, somewhat elegantly in Celibidache’s interpretation, in a endless battery of semiquavers and ending with an accelerating cascade into the Catacombs of Paris. Against a background of dank echoes, the light from Hartmann’s lantern reflects brightly off the walls. In the same place the composer laments With the Dead in a Dead Language (Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua). Celibidache converses quietly with the dead, letting every chord resound through the catacombs.
Baba-Yaga (a witch of Russian folklore) announces herself with a series of evil screams, followed by a ghastly, clumsy ride through the night in The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Here the Celibidache tempo does not leave one breathless after the ride, but rather accentuates the cackles of the gawdy witch. After a brief respite where she seems to contemplate the fate of her victims, the ride resumes with renewed intensity and drives straight into the Great Gate of Kiev.
Hartmann’s design for an entrance gate for the town of Kiev in the massive style of ancient Russia (which was never realised), has been translated by Mussorgsky into an equally massive and monumental work. Celibidache takes the opening theme in an original way, by letting the final note of each phrase drop dramatically in volume, literally creating arches with the music. After seeing the languid arches in the first section, the listener hears a reverent chorale in the woodwinds before the splendour of the gate returns.
The second chorale gradually broadens and leads back to the theme, this time complete with bells tolling and gongs crashing. After a flourish of ribbons and confetti, the Maestoso section starts grandly and, for Celibidache, this means an even slower tempo: all the more effective to showcase the majesty of the gate. In the final thirteen bars, the theme turns up in whole-notes and half-notes, with pauses on the first two notes of each phrase. Celibidache pulls out all the stops here, letting the chords reverberate and the bell tolls with surprising force, bringing the listener physically into Kiev to marvel at the spectacule before him. The final chords, needless to say, rank in the superlatives of a grandiose and majestic end.
As the remastering producer and tape editor Marcus Herzog writes in the liner notes, this recording has been minimally edited to preserve Celibidache’s vision of letting the listener experience a performance “live” (even the applause has been carefully preserved in 4 tracks, each lasting roughly one whole minute). Hence, this would be the closest a listener could get to actually sitting in the Munich audience during a Celibidache concert. True to the effort put in, little of the immediacy of the concert hall has been lost in this recording.
Yet the highest value of this recording rests in the preservation of the vision of a conductor who believes in actually conducting music – not simply notes on a score, but also the spirit, drama and passion of every single note, every consonance and dissonance, and who has enough skill to bring every little savoury bit together to form a delectable delicacy that, in my opinion, is in a league of its own, incomparable to other performances!