INKPOT#84 CLASSICAL MUSIC: Celibidache Conducts Russian Music – Stravinsky, Prokofiev, RimskyKorsakov, Mussorgsky, SWR Stuttgart, RSO (DG)

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Pictures at an ExhibitionIgor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Le Baiser de la fée · The FirebirdNicholai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
ScheherazadeSergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Scythian Suite · Symphony No 5 in B-flat major
Romeo & Juliet

SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Live recordings.

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Celibidache Edition 445 139-2
3 discs [61:26 + 73:40 + 68:43] full-price. +Bonus CD [20:06]

by Marc Bridle

“What passion cannot music raise and quell?”

John Dryden may not have had a 20th century musical tyrant in mind when he wrote that, but nothing better describes this astonishing set of Russian orchestral masterpieces. The scope of these works weaves a compelling canvas of love and death, sun-bleached barbarism and the exotic telling of fairy tales, and nowhere does art so fully aspire to the condition of music than in Hartmann’s paintings brought to musical life in the orchestrated Pictures at an Exhibition. Celibidache (1912-1996) had an instinctive feel for the Russian mood that no other western conductor really matches. His Tchaikovsky is often revelatory (none here, unfortunately), but all of that pales beside his quite extraordinary interpretation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. No other version I have heard so clearly captures the rich sonority of this score, and makes the contrast between the fury of the elements and the beguiling sensuousness of the prince and his princess so achingly apparent.

Righ: Portrait of Rimsky-Korsakov
by Ralf Krieger.

This is a hedonistic score, lush with melodies and drama, and Celibidache’s intimacy with the teachings of the Advaita school of Vendanta philosophy allows him to take us nearest to the Nirvana that Rimsky-Korsakov must have had in mind when he composed it. It is a performance as free from affectation as you will hear, supremely exciting in the first movement where trombones, tuba and basses usher in the main theme, exhilarating in the storm at sea and with a lone violin that hovers and soars majestically in the love music. Unrivalled.

The coupling could not be more appropriate. In many ways indebted to Scheherazade, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite is an opulent fairy tale. The music is often ravishing, with flutter-tonguing woodwind and string glissando. Chromaticism represents the magic of the creatures, and a diatonic style the mortals. The very opening of Celibidache’s performance compels one to enter this dream world: low strings and a lone bassoon, all played in the most dark-hued of pianissimi. The Variation of the Firebird is conjured from waspishly played woodwinds, the Infernal Dance of King Kashchei is both barbaric and menacing with glowering brass and thundering timpani. What makes this a great performance, though, is Celibidache’s extraordinary understanding of the rhythmic dances that pulse throughout this score. The folkish elements are spontaneously mastered and the primitivism is born out of instinct. An extraordinary disc.

At least nine performances of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition exist with Celibidache conducting. This Stuttgart recording, from 1978, is one of the very finest. (The 1993 Munich Philharmonic performance is reviewed here)

Modest Mussorgsky The piece in itself presents one serious problem: how Russian is it? Ravel’s orchestration is certainly not authentically Russian, and this has often distorted many performances which are drawn with the most vivid strokes of colour. Mussorgsky’s original piano scoring is much darker-hued, and a truly great performance would have to incorporate both the the scherzando elements and the pungent scoring of the later movements in something approaching Mussorgsky’s original conception.

Left: Portrait of Mussorgsky (1881)
by Ilya Repin (1844-1930).

For this reason the greatest recordings have often been the most imaginative. Karajan’s 1966 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DG 447 426-2) is outstanding as it takes us on an energy-swelled tour of Hartmann’s gallery, at times at an electrifying pace. Celibidache’s performance has something of this spine-tingling excitement, but our tour of the gallery is a more intensely focused experience.

From the opening Promenade, our Stuttgart guides eschew hastiness and instead allow us to move towards the first portrait unrushed. The familiar opening theme is played as if to allow us to concentrate more on the surroundings. What the real effect is, of course, is to let us see (and, thereby, hear) something familiar from a new viewpoint.

Ultimately, each portrait is given a fresh look and a redefined character. This is most apparent in the last four pictures. Catacombae: Sepulchrum Romanum, as expansively played as here, is made frighteningly sinister. The brass almost curdle, and they play with a ferocity that is uniquely pungent. In La Cabane sur des pattes de poule (Baba-Yaga), the articulation of the tubas is astonishingly sharp and played with a superb understanding of rhythm.

La Grande Porte de Kiev (The Great Gate) is taken very expansively by Celibidache, a common thread in all of his recordings. The extra expansiveness adds real splendour to this picture. In few portraits on disc is the great brass sonority that opens the movement so blazingly played. When the chorale appears at bar 30 for the first time (1:01 in this performance), it is evocatively caught against the preceding upheaval, only for the final statement to end the piece in the most dramatic of fugues. Spacious it maybe, but also uniquely weighty and totally in keeping with Celibidache’s vision of this piece as a monumental, symphonic structure. Such a conception gives the Pictures the sense of being an organic whole, rather than a series of intrusions posted between the promenades.

The recording, although stereo, captures this performance in its ripest colours and the Stuttgart forces play with great virtuosity. The coupling for this disc is a beautifully played account of Stravinsky’s Le Baiser de la fée.

Prokofiev The last disc is devoted to two Prokofiev works – the Fifth Symphony and the Scythian Suite. Celibidache only ever played the First and Fifth symphonies of Prokofiev, and five versions of the latter are now available. Celibidache’s conception of this work changed markedly over the years, with this 1979 Stuttgart version being decidedly more spacious than his 1960 Milan performance (on Arkadia CD 434). The 1960 version had a first movement Andante timed at 11:25; by 1979, this first movement was 12:50.

The Fifth Symphony is a wartime work, composed in 1944, and, according to Prokofiev, was to “sing of man, free and happy, of his strength, generosity and the purity of his soul”. It is an Olympian work (to paraphrase Sviatoslav Richter) and as such Celibidache’s more spacious tempi in his Stuttgart reading allow the work to take on a more sonorous quality that is lacking in the Milan concert performance. The opening theme, gentle and quiet, breathes and expands as the earlier version does not. Phrasing is more delicately placed, and the dynamism that somewhat disfigured his earlier interpretations is now replaced with a maturity and nobility. This is a sonically graceful reading, full of proportion and enormous self-control and the widest dynamic control. As such, it contrasts with George Szell’s famous Vienna performance (Orfeo 87689-2), one that is muscular as well as athletic and uninhibited.

Coupled with Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite (1914-15), given here in an extraordinarily volatile performance, with orchestral playing that rips through the notes like a thunder bolt, and with climaxes that literally explode, this is one of the finest Prokofiev couplings available.

The bonus disc offers three extracts from Prokofiev’s greatest achievement, his ballet Romeo and Juliet. Tybalt’s Death (from Suite No.1, op.64a), Juliet as a Young Girl and Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb (both from Suite No.2 op.64b) are all played very spaciously indeed. The effect is quite extraordinary.

In Juliet as a Young Girl, the moods are expressively conveyed – a sublime clarinet solo depicting her grace, her calmness played with pure romanticism on a solo cello, her sadness captured by Celibidache in his careful articulation of harp and saxophone as they scale the orchestra. The agony of Romeo’s horror as he stands at Juliet’s tomb, at once conveyed by a sparse string melody of unusual despondency, makes way for the shattering climax (and for once it really is that, drenched in tragedy) that announces the most passionate music Prokofiev ever wrote. That passion is saturated in the most exquisite sonic world. Only Myung-Whun Chung’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (DG 439 870-2) come near Celibidache’s Stuttgart forces in making this music sound so passionate. What strings!

These CDs offer some of the greatest performances of the Russian repertory now available. It is hard not to conclude that Celibidache produced some interpretations of inordinately supreme imagination, not least a Scheherazade that is unmatched anywhere else. And that oft-quoted remark that Celibidache could make second-rate radio orchestras play like the very best is here confirmed. The playing throughout these discs is of the very highest order.

The recordings are very good, clear and well focused, and Deutsche Grammophon’s packaging is excellent (as it should be for these full-priced discs). One only hopes that DG will release more of Celibidache in Russian repertoire: Shostakovich’s Fifth with the MPO (1986), and with his Stuttgart orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth (1980), Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (1976), and Romeo and Juliet (1976). As it stands, though, this is a must purchase.

Marc Bridle‘s fairy tale starts with him drinking a bottle of Château Petrus with his new wife, Kristin Scott-Thomas.

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