Monday, January 14, 2013

Celibidache Conducts Bruckner

Bruckner, Symphony No. 6, 7, 8
Sergiu Celibidache
Münchner Philharmoniker
Sony 88691952709-01/2/3 (3 DVD)

Bruckner, Symphony No. 4
Sergiu Celibidache
Münchner Philharmoniker
Sony 88691952709-04 (2 CDs)

This handsome set contains 3 DVDs of live TV broadcasts (2 from Suntory Hall in Tokyo and 1 from the Philharmonie am Gasteig), together with a CD recording of a concert at the Grosser Saal des Musikvereins. The DVDs are of the 6th, 7th, and 8th symphonies, and have previously been released on VHS and Laserdisc. The performance of the 4th on CD is a new addition to the catalog. The sound quality is good in all four symphonies. The picture on the DVDs leaves something to be desired, but it is hard to imagine that anybody will be buying this set for the quality of the picture.

These recordings are from late in Celibidache’s career, recorded between 1989 and 1991 (he died in 1996 at the age of 84). They are representative of the expansive and mystical approach to Bruckner that he developed during his tenure with the Munich Philharmonic. The timings tell the tale. The 4th, for example, is over 1 hour 20 minutes long, compared say with 63 minutes for Haitink’s Philips recording with the Concertgebouw. No major conductor whom I can find has recorded a 4th that is less than 10 minutes shorter than this one. Interestingly, the expansiveness is not uniform. The major stretch occurs in the finale (30”13’ for Celi, vs. 19”49’ for Haitink).
The DVDs reveal a compelling podium presence, able to extract gradations of sound with tiny movements of the baton. The Munich Philharmonic is incredibly responsive, and clearly well attuned to their principal conductor’s way with Bruckner. Celibidache conducts from memory and appears to be in a state of mystical communion with the music. He is visibly pained at how quickly the applause begins at the end of the 8th.

Celibidache’s late style has rapturous proponents and violent detractors. This is exactly to be expected, given the extreme nature of his interpretation. And in a sense both groups are correct. It is quite right that nobody conducts Bruckner like Celibidache, and that his interpretation opens up aspects of each symphony that are either hidden or backgrounded with other conductors. The speed at which he moves allows the complex layers of Bruckner’s orchestration to emerge in all their richness, and Celibidache’s ability to shape a melodic contour is really quite extraordinary.

At the same time, however, there are definite losses. At times the musical line is so elongated that momentum is almost lost and it becomes hard to see the wood for the (admittedly wonderful) trees. It is also difficult for Celibidache to bring out some of the rhythmic and tempo contrasts that give structure to Bruckner’s symphonies. The Scherzo in the 8th, for example, lacks the bite and edge that most conductors give it (and that, in my view, it needs to have for the symphony to work). And, more generally, one of the reasons Bruckner’s Adagios are so powerful is that they open up a sense of musical space not present in the other movements. This differentiation can be lost in Celibidache’s interpretations.

To my ear the 8th is the least successful of these concerts, precisely because of this loss of contrast and tension in the outer movements (the Adagio, as might be expected, is very powerful indeed). I had similar problems with the 4th, at least until the last movement. The 7th lends itself more to Celibidache’s ultra-measured approach, but the most successful performance is definitely the 6th.

Acoustically and visually this set is a testament to the vision of a great Bruckner conductor. These will never be reference recordings, but I think that every Brucknerian will want to listen to these recordings, and many will treasure them.