Celibidache Edition – Swedish RSO Recordings (DG) – INKPOT

(The Swedish RSO Recordings)

Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104

Cesar FRANCK (1822-1890) Symphony in D Minor

Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963) Symphony “Mathis der Maler”

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.43 Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op.82

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op.28
Don Juan, Op.20

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.9 in E flat Major, Op. 70

Jacqueline du Pr cello
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra


Live recordings

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Celibidache Edition 469 069-2
4 discs [45:20 + 70:01 + 81:18 + 60:35] full-price

by Jonathan Yungkans

Crackpot or visionary, Sergiu Celibidache could, like Wilhelm Furtwängler (with whom he co-conducted the Berlin Philharmonic after World War II), coax performances of startling beauty and intensity from his players. The performances here date from 1965 to 1971, and though Celibidache’s tempi here are usually not too far from the norm, the weights and measures that he often employs can be unconventional. Even though the results could be decidedly mixed, as they are here, when everything came together, the resulting breadth of vision could be considered out of the ordinary.

What makes this breadth compelling and not mind-numbing are two things. First, Celibidache (left) allows the music to continually flow naturally in a seamless river of sound, so that when a melody passed from the first violins to double basses, orchestral shifts were practically inaudible. The orchestral sound may swell and shrink with the music, but while the emotional undercurrent is not ignored, there are no jarring or abrupt musical or emotional transitions. Much of this may have to do with Celibidache’s Zen philosophy, which supposedly guided his interpretations.

The second, perhaps less spiritual but no less important component to Celibidache’s music-making is his continually pointing up the rhythm of the piece he is conducting. A performance with a slow tempo and slack rhythm (unfortunately how many conductors and instrumentalists play today) can quickly become interminable. Give the same tempo a solid rhythmic backbone, however, and the same piece can become riveting. No matter how slow the piece, Celibidache never loses the basic pulse, which can make a composition actually pass more quickly than a comparatively paced performance where the pulse is not as apparent.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is the Dvorak Cello Concerto with soloist Jacqueline du Pr. At 45:20, this is the slowest performance I have yet come across. Yet, when I listened, it rippled with life and energy, making Mstislav Rostropovich’s EMI recording with Carlo Maria Giulini and the London Philharmonic (at 43:11, slightly faster) seem as though playing in slow motion, like Keanu Reaves ducking bullets in The Matrix.

Celibidache saw working with a soloist not as accompaniment, but as a full-fledged meeting of the minds, more akin to chamber music. As such, du Pr’s and Celibidache’s thoughts on the Dvorak dovetail quite nicely, and the piece gains in poignancy and emotional richness with the added breathing room. A hushed, meditative quality hangs over the quieter sections, making them even more heart-tugging than usual. My only complaint is that with this as the only piece on the disc, it seems like we are given short shrift. But given the quality of the playing, the point is basically a niggling one. Perhaps with the intensity of the work’s final moments, only silence would seem appropriate.

At 42:27, a performance of the Franck Symphony needs something extraordinary to make it worthwhile, and by all rights, this one should not work. At first listen, there is relatively little that would be considered dramatic contrast, the strings could sound fuller and the brass underplays more often than not. Yet the performance hooks you, and you cannot either stop listening to it or keep those tempi from resounding in your brain for days afterward.

Only later do you realize what Celibidache is doing here. As Anders Jansson writes in the notes for the Dvorak:

His crescendos were masterfully formed and something more than a simple increase in loudness; very gradually he built up the sound through the precisely calculated entries of the individual parts, which together finally executed the actual crescendo.

Following this practice, at critical junctures in the first movement, instead of speeding up, Celibidache gradually broadens the tempo, allowing more time for the orchestra to increase in fullness of tone and ratcheting the tension several degrees – an object lesson in why slower is better when handled expertly. Nothing drags; all the tempi and their fluctuations, minute and otherwise, feel as natural as breathing.

The Allegretto has a measured, hesitant air that adds great character to the music, with yearning and foreboding in equal measure, all the while sounding like some medieval pageant. The finale is more problematical. While the quieter sections bog down, taken too slowly in an attempt to build mystery and suspense, the more boisterous parts rival Pierre Monteux’s classic reading in sheer unbridled joy. Not a recommendation, but a fascinating alternative well worth hearing.

No such problems complicate the Hindemith Symphony “Mathis der Maler,” which is given a searing reading. “Angel Concert” is exceedingly joyful, with good humor continually bubbling to the surface and virtually erupting in the climax six minutes into the movement. “The Temptation of St. Anthony” is full of shattering climaxes, soaring strings and edgy, at times overwhelming tension. In between, “Entombment” emerges as a deeply felt, at times wrenching elegy. Hindemith was a composer to whom Celibidache was extermely loyal throughout his career, and that dedication is plainly in evidence here.

Celibidache allows plenty of space and clarity for counterpoint to unfold while stringing the rhythms so they fall trippingly from bows, reeds and mouthpieces. His speeds lend the music added weight while his rhythmic emphasis allows it to move with speed and grace. Altogether, this is easily one of the finest performances this symphony has received. Hopefully, either DG or EMI will unearth more Celibidache performances of Hindemith’s music, especially of this caliber.

The Sibelius Second Symphony is comparable to Sir John Barbirolli’s recording with the Royal Philharmonic (CHESKY CD-3 – full-price), sharing virtually identical speeds in three movements. But while the opening allegretto conquers the waves valiantly, the andante, two minutes longer than Barbirolli’s, is sodden enough to nearly sink the boat.

Celibidache takes Sibelius’s indication andante, ma rubato seriously, and about nine minutes into the movement, seasickness from the increasingly turgid string lines starts to kick in. That plus the lack of tension places us perilously close to drowning in the music instead of smoothly sailing through it. Celibidache’s fussiness and lack of impetus in the finale invokes a similar queasiness, as do some sour trumpets at 8:37 and decidedly mixed string playing almost immediately after that.

While the Sibelius Second makes it seem we are going to sleep with the fishes, the Fifth Symphony encourages us to soar with the swans. Even with one or two labored moments, the first movement rises steadily through more layers of cloud and gloom than in most traversals, to a climax not unlike a glorious Finnish sunrise. The extremely genial scherzo is impossible to resist, becoming thrilling as the music picks up speed. If the accelerando that ends this movement does not get your heart racing, you had better check your pulse.

The Andante mosso could not be paced or played better, with every section ideally characterized – the bucolic charm of the opening, the stronger affection of the central episode and the darker shadows that pass across the final moments, leaving a wistful coda. Near the end of the central section (around 6:05), the orchestra kicks up its heels, catching the dance-like bounce Sibelius wrote into the music with a spring and a tender smile.

But Celibidache saves the finest part of the flight for last. The swan theme arrives in the Allegro molto with all the awe and majesty that the composer must have felt when the birds that inspired him flew overhead. Thanks to the details the conductor brings out, it is finally clear not only how pervasive the swan theme truly is in this movement, but also how strongly the mythic and restorative power of nature beats through this work as a whole. That message resonates through an emotional richness and complexity not so far removed from this symphony’s sister, the Fourth – a range that makes even Leonard Bernstein’s VPO account of the Fifth seem comparatively shallow. Along with the Dvorak and Hindemith, this is perhaps the finest performance in the set.

After hearing the Strauss works, I can understand Marc Brindle’s enthusiasm in his review of Celibidache’s Stuttgart recordings . The conductor sets the scene in Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks more softly than usual, as if to show how sleepy a place this town really was, contrasting with the sheer uproariousness of Till’s mischief.

That humor is not the truly naughty kind George Szell so readily captured (no one got Till to sashay, Mae West style, in a woman’s frock as well as he did), but with a sly glint in its eye nonetheless. Celibidache has Till openly pondering what he can get away with next and laughing heartily at his success – at least until he is caught, and the full terror of Till’s reaction to the court’s judgment is chillingly brought home.

Celibidache’s Don Juan shares the delicate touch and romantic spirit of his Stuttgart performance, and luxuriates in the sheer opulence of the music. This Don luxuriates a little too fully in the quieter sections, however, and seems to have put on a middle-age spread. As exceedingly well played as this is, it will not be the performance I reach for when I want to hear this work.

The same goes for the Shostakovich Ninth Symphony in this set. For all its deliberate simplicity and joviality, this is music that dances satirically and dangerously on a knife’s edge, knowing that one slip could prove fatal (which is what its composer thought when he wrote the work). Compared to Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic account (SONY SMK 61841 – mid-price), Celibidache is too refined, the knife too dull to be truly threatening.

Is this set worth recommending? Yes, to a point. The Dvorak, Hindemith, and Sibelius Fifth are almost worth the price of the set by themselves, and the Franck and Strauss, though flawed, are worth hearing. If you have been curious about this conductor, the variety of composers featured and overall excellence of musical execution make this set a good place to start. If you want to go with something less pricey, DG has licensed the Dvorak – probably the most attractive performance here – to Teldec. The Teldec disc (8573 85340-2 – full-price) couples the Dvorak with du Pr’s live Saint-Saens First Cello Concerto, played with great panache with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.

898: 15.2.2001 Jonathan Yungkans

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