C1726. SERGIU CELIBIDACHE Cond. London S.O.: THE MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE - Ritual Dances (Tippett), Live Performance, 10 April, 1980; SERGIU CELIBIDACHE Cond. Lucerne Festival Orch.: Variationen für Orchester (Schönberg), Live Performance, 14 Aug., 1974. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-835. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“The pairing of Schönberg and Celibidache seems as unlikely as sardines and chocolate. I find no indication that the eccentric Romanian ever led ‘Verklärte Nacht’ on disc, much less the opaque ‘Variations for Orchestra’ from 1926–28. It was Schönberg’s first twelve-tone piece for large ensemble. Audiences still shrink from it, and one might suppose that Celibidache did too. But here it is from a concert at the 1974 Lucerne Festival, and if one exclamation point wasn’t enough, a 1980 reading of the suite from Tippett’s breakthrough opera, THE MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE, adds a second one. St. Laurent Studio should have considered as cover art Groucho Marx shooting his bushy eyebrows up.
Naked curiosity drew me to this unexpected release, and it bore fruit. Much of Schönberg’s difficulty stems from resisting his name. He was a great orchestrator in the vein of Mahler, as demonstrated by the Five Orchestral Pieces and again here in the Variations. This affords an entry point; you can appreciate the beauty and variety of the sounds the orchestra is making; the colors are suited to changes of mood, exactly as in Mahler. We are in the same world as Brahms’ Haydn Variations, with a theme, variations, and coda.
The main difference is that Schönberg’s theme is a tone row that the average listener, including this one, cannot grasp the way melody is grasped; therefore, the variations make little musical sense without detailed program notes. I educated myself with a set of notes by Michael Steinberg at a Carnegie Hall concert years ago, and it has enabled me to enjoy the Variations for Orchestra, an enjoyment that began by not resisting it. I hope this proves helpful for others whose jaws clench and stomachs churn when they hear the piece or run away from it.
True to his Romantic roots, Celibidache delivers a warm reading in which the unacclaimed Lucerne Festival Orchestra of the Seventies produces lively and mostly lovely sounds captured in acceptable FM-quality stereo. An air of affection surrounds the performance, and I even appreciated the orchestra’s catch-as-catch-can execution, which makes the listening experience less daunting than the precision of Karajan and Boulez. (Others might insist, I know, that the piece deserves to be played as perfectly as possible.)
The present release doesn’t cue a track for each variation, which is a drawback, but Celibidache tends to make a slight pause here and there (Simon Rattle actually stopped between variations in the Carnegie Hall concert with the Berliners that I attended - a born teacher knew what he was doing). In any event, the change-ups from variation to variation make it natural to hear where each one begins and ends. Celibidache resorts to conventional tempos, and his timing of 21:44 minutes is actually almost a minute faster than Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG).
St. Laurent Studio typically doesn’t reveal its sources, but Tippett’s Ritual Dances sound fuller, more vivid, and closer to modern standards than the Schoenberg, not to mention the superiority of the London Symphony. The esteemed critic Andrew Porter did his best, on multiple occasions, to champion THE MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE as a masterpiece of English opera. By 1955 the 50-year-old Tippett was immersed in his own private modernist idiom, which listeners found difficult and some critics derided as beyond idiosyncratic. There are four dances for orchestra, all but the last preceded by sections titled ‘Transformation’ and ‘Preparation’. This typically results in 12 tracks, but St. Laurent Studio combines the ‘Transformation’ and ‘Preparation’ sections, which reduces the tracks to eight - I doubt listeners will be much concerned either way. Tippett’s format for the dances embraces seasonal cycles: the titles are ‘The earth in autumn’, ‘The waters in winter’, ‘The air in spring’, and ‘Fire in Summer’. The music isn’t as descriptive as the titles suggest, however, and Tippett’s free-form musical imagination is evident everywhere. He’s like Delius with his feet more on the ground. Questions of tonality and atonality are overcome by harmonies that the ear cannot identify one way or the other much of the time.
As with the Schönberg, if you immerse yourself in Tippett’s sounds and rhythms without resistance, the pagan joyfulness of the Ritual Dances tells its own tale. Celibidache’s timing is within half a minute of the standard recommendations: Colin Davis (Decca), Richard Hickox (Chandos), and the Composer (Nimbus). Despite the occasional cougher in the audience and some tape hiss, Celibidache’s performance is in the same league and has its own special vitality and vibrancy.
I’ve taken up extra space to offer a bit of special pleading for some difficult music, but any listener attuned to these pieces - not to mention Celibidache collectors - will find pleasure here. No apprehension about sardines and chocolate need hold you back.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
"Celibidache was the most phenomenally gifted musician. He could shape a piece any way he liked, and did....of his musicianship, his ability and his showmanship there can be no doubt. His intellect was prodigious - he spoke fifteen languages, or it may have been thirty. Who knows? He was a truly, truly great musician. He was certainly a character and conductor one can't ignore in terms of the development of conducting in the second half of the twentieth century".
- Norman Lebrecht
"The transcedentally-endowed Romanian conductor, Sergiu Celibidache, studied Philosophy and Mathematics at the University of Bucharest. In 1936 he went to Berlin and continued his studies, largely concerning himself with wave mechanics, but also with musical studies. He wrote his doctorate on Josquin des Pres. From 1939 to 1945 he studied and the Berlin College of Music under Fritz Stein, Kurt Thomas and Walter Gmeindl.
After completing his studies, Sergiu Celibidache was immediately able to work with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra because the orchestra's previous conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, was suspected of collaboration and received no permit for public performances. For three years, he conducted most concerts of the famous orchestra and proved his exceptional personality. After Wilhelm Furtwängler's return as the head of the orchestra he mainly worked as a guest conductor without committing himself to any single orchestra for a long period because his demands were almost impossible to fulfill, and he himself was not willing to make any concessions to his musicians or audience. At first, he continued to work mainly with Berlin orchestras - the Philharmonic Orchestra and the RIAS Berlin Radio Orchestra. After the appointment of Herbert von Karajan as the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Celibidache did not conduct the orchestra again for another 37 years.
1948 saw the debut of Sergiu Celibidache in London. Then he frequently conducted in Italy. From 1959 he was regularly invited by the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. From 1960 to 1962 he held master courses at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena; the young conductors were extremely keen to be admitted. In 1962 he became the director of the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra, which he completely rebuilt. From 1973 to 1975 he was the primary permanent guest conductor of the French Orchestre National. In 1979 he became the director of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, which he made one of the best orchestras in the world. In Munich he held master courses in orchestral conducting. Despite his severe illness he didn't stop conducting until a few months before his death."
- Zillah D. Akron