AOM Logo February 1999

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major (The Great), D944
Sergiu Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra

EMI Classics 5 56527 2

Playing Time: 59:26

Anthony Kershaw

Record Cover

Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache’s musical life story was not written in the mainstream. With his talent and carefully manicured mystique, the musical world seemed to be his for the taking. However, his unorthodox opinions on tempos, recording, rehearsal time and a general distrust of the industry precluded his adoption into traditional classical circles. Indeed, most orchestras could not afford the seven rehearsals he demanded and record producers would not accommodate his extraordinary demands. Therefore, much of Celibidache’s recorded output is sourced from pirate tapes or other recordings of dubious quality. After Celibidache’s death in 1996, his estate showed interest in releasing some of his archival tapes to a record company willing to produce them in the musical spirit the conductor intended.

Consequently, the new EMI Classic’s boxed set of some of Celibidache's finest concerts with the Munich Philharmonic is cause for celebration (DGG have also signed on to release a series of discs). EMI have taken great care to remaster the recordings faithfully (the sound is uniformly superb throughout the set) and make good use of the liner notes to examine carefully the musical mind and soul of this most enigmatic of musicians.

Choosing the Schubert Ninth Symphony CD out of the box set was an easy task; the sunny and melodious work has been a favorite of mine since college days. Celibidache takes great care in allowing all of the melodic beauty of this great work to shine, yet he also brings out some ominous tones that I have not encountered previously; this dark quality is aided in some part by his choice of tempos. As in much of Celibidache’s later work, the tempos in this Ninth will be regarded by many as too slow (the Allegro vivace Scherzo is a bit leaden of foot). However, the tempos do allow principal players to shape each grateful solo with style and grace – as such, nothing seems breathless or hurried. For those of our readers who prefer grace, style and speed, pick up a copy conducted by Charles Munch on RCA; also a wonderful, but very different, conception, and played superbly by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

On this evidence, no one will doubt Celibidache’s ability to produce a glorious orchestral sound. The Munich Philharmonic acquits itself very well (the solo oboe and strings are particularly fine) and compare favorably to Munch’s Boston band. Like much of Celibidache’s music making, he expects tuning that is flawless and orchestral balances that are voiced perfectly. The Munich players do not let their Maestro down.

The 1991 live recording, sourced from the orchestra’s home (the Philharmonie am Gasteig), is detailed and rich in tonal color. Strings have heft that adds much to Celibidache’s conception, and the solo woodwinds and brass instruments are heard clearly in the wide soundstage. This fine digital recording withstood the scrutiny of comparison to the great shaded dog LP of Munch’s RCA Living Stereo (LSC-2344). Inner voices, so clear in much of Celibidache’s work, are given near equal treatment to the melodic line. Listen to the clear and perfectly articulated violin accompaniment to the second subject in the final movement for a taste of both Celibidache’s style and EMI’s care.

No conductor in recent history has stirred up so much controversy as Celibidache. Some consider him a charlatan! True, his tempos can be an acquired taste, yet this Schubert Ninth Symphony will be a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with his work to dip their toes into his musical waters (each CD is available separately). Listening to the qualities present on this CD reminded me of two late seventies concerts I attended while a student in London (two highly advertised Celibidache events conducting the LSO in Scheherezade and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony). All these years later, I can still remember the gorgeous tone quality and the great care with balance and intonation. The quality of the concerts exceeded the hype and celebrated music making of the highest quality. Thus, if you are willing to experience Celibidache’s particular form of intoxication, try this Schubert CD. You may be trading the single CD for the boxed set.

[The Teldec Video, "The Legendary Conductors of a Golden Era" (95710-3), includes some wonderful footage on this complex musician.]

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