The recent release of a DVD showing Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996) conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra towards the end of his career makes amends for the fact that, on his 100th anniversary, the music industry has otherwise ignored him. That is understandable. Whereas the legacy of composers lasts forever, conductors are quickly forgotten, and even in his lifetime Celibidache was hardly a household name.
In the absence of an acceptable German to lead the destitute Berlin Philharmonic at the end of the second world war, the four occupying powers gave the principal conductor’s post to the then unknown 34-year-old Romanian with an unpronounceable name (Chelly-bee-daa-kay). He was replaced as soon as Wilhelm Furtwängler was de-nazified, and “Celi” spent much of the rest of his career conducting second-tier radio orchestras – the only ones able and willing to satisfy his extravagant rehearsal demands. His return to the Philharmonic in 1992 to conduct Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was a one-off, bringing together two prima donnas for the sake of propriety and reconciliation. Celibidache worked best with musicians who knew his ways. His tempi were always slow but as he grew older, they became sluggish. The EuroArts film of that Berlin concert does not represent him at his best.
There are more important reasons for remembering Celibidache – reasons that, paradoxically, are connected to his lifelong opposition to recordings. Celibidache insisted that music can only live in the moment, and in the surroundings, in which it is created: each moment, each concert, is an experience that cannot be repeated. To give an exact replica of a performance is to deny the meaning of music, and therefore to deny it life.
While contemporaries such as Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti were building international reputations on the back of lucrative studio recordings, “Celi” appeared to shoot himself in the foot. His refusal to make recordings meant he was known only to the cognoscenti who attended his concerts. It was only after his death that record companies uncovered a treasure chest: all his concerts with radio orchestras had been preserved in high-quality sound. Even the Munich Philharmonic, a municipal orchestra of which he was chief conductor for the last decade of his life, had secretly taped his performances. The result is a legacy that documents a unique approach to music-making.
If you want a visual flavour of “Celi” at work, pride of place goes to Sergiu Celibidache in Rehearsal and Performance, a EuroArts DVD that shows him conducting the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel (1965) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade (1982). The Rimsky, captured a little too late in his career, is worth observing for Celi’s despotic control, but the 33-minute Strauss rehearsal finds him at his zenith. Here is the younger, more vital Celi, smiling and singing, haranguing and joking – Celi the ecstatic fusion of heart and head, behaving like a pedant before letting the music take off. This is where DVD scores over CD, because it demonstrates that Celi’s charisma was as much pedagogical and visual (eyes ablaze, long strands of silver hair swaying from his temples) as intellectual, musical and moral.
The other essential Celibidache DVD is Medici Arts’ film of a 1994 Munich Philharmonic concert in Cologne, comprising music that demonstrated his unrivalled ear for timbre and colour. His Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is the nearest to musical Zen we are likely to get: it floats outside time and space. A scarcely less magical Ravel Rhapsodie espagnole resonates between precision, subtlety and refinement. This is far more revealing than the four Opus Arte DVDs of his 1969-70 Turin Radio public concerts, while the Arthaus Musik film Celibidache: You don’t do anything – you let it evolve is an imperfect analysis of his art.
On CD, Music and Arts’ crackly German Radio recordings from his early Berlin days and EMI’s extensive documentation of his Munich swan song are strictly for “Celi” fans. The performances to go for are those from his middle career – Debussy’s Nocturnes, Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler, Rimsky’s Sheherazade, Strauss’s Don Juan and the Brahms and Bruckner symphonies, played by the Swedish and Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestras and preserved on Deutsche Grammophon. These discs – quintessentially the 1971 Bruckner Seventh – exemplify his ability to combine architectural command with concern for detail, temperamental drive with contemplative stillness, chamber musical finesse with monumental grandeur.