MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; CHERUBINI: Symphony in D; BACK: Intrada – Orch. del Teatro “La Fenice”/ Sergiu Celibidache – IDIS

A spectacular Celibidache concert from Venice demonstrates his capacity for drama and vivid colors – always.

MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; CHERUBINI: Symphony in D Major; BACK: Intrada – Orch. del Teatro “La Fenice” di Venezia/ Sergiu Celibidache – IDIS 6708, 68:34 [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

The live concert offered here, 31 October 1965, under the direction of Romanian maestro Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996) proffers somewhat standard, spectacular fare, with the exception of Sven Erik Back’s 1964 Intrada, a percussive, convulsive work that tests the battery section of any ensemble. Back (1919-1994) had a role in contemporary Swedish music-making, and his sense of scoring certainly proves resonant, in a style that resembles Gottfried von Einem, at least in that most of the sound clusters fall within the traditional tonal syntax.  But the clash of timbres and choirs within the large ensemble – their sense of entries and silences – have more in common with contemporary Japanese classical music and the concept of Ma, space.  At the end of the ten-minute virtuoso piece, a slightly baffled audience reluctantly approves of what has transpired.

The 1792 Cherubini Symphony in D opens with a lovely galant combination of strings and winds prior to its Allegro main theme and development.  Cherubini, much admired by Beethoven, establishes a neat balance of lyric and muscular motifs, often in unobtrusive counterpoint. Celibidache’s rendition makes Cherubini sound pre-Schubert. The second movement Larghetto proceeds in lyrically gracious sonata-form, celebrating the woodwinds.  The last two movements – Minuetto and Finale – certainly anticipate Beethoven while reveling in techniques Haydn would admire. Celibidache gives the Trio section of the rustic Minuet its chugging, flighty due, much in the manner of a buffo aria for flute. Dynamic rhythms mark the last movement, another study in sonata-form, capitalizing on Cherubini’s polyphony and blended colors. This Finale suggests more of the sturm und drang sensibility than prior movements, but still executed with a light hand. The style of counterpoint could easily have influenced Samuel Barber.

The familiar Mussorgsky Pictures, in the Ravel orchestration, enjoy – or suffer – the usual Celibidache stretches of tempo and sound spaces, much for a heightened dramatic effect. Gnomus, particularly, has rarely sounded so slow and petulant.  The result of such intense treatment focuses on Mussorgsky’s uncanny harmony, and how much it approaches the more ‘studied’ syntax of the Second Viennese School. The Promenade before The Old Castle, too, has gained a new sympathy. The Castle itself becomes a kind of saxophone serenade in languid Mediterranean colors.

Bydlo, the Polish ox-cart, rumbles a bit nervously before acquiring its massive, even passionate, expressiveness. The snare drum alone warrants the price of admission. The colloquy between Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle plays out a bit of Yiddish psycho-drama. No less manic, the Limoges section rushes to the Catacombs, a reminder that “in the midst of life we are in death.” If ever Mussorgsky has an opportunity to sound like modernized brass Gabrieli, it happens here. Few diminuendos can equal what Celibidache draws from his strings as the skulls illuminate from within. Baba-Yaga pounces on humanity with her requisite set of creepy colors, a combination of Liadov scoring and Lisztian malevolence. As per expectation, The Great Gate of Kiev receives resplendent treatment, if ever a cymbal clash could pulverize an audience.  But no less effective sounds are the Russian liturgy the pilgrims’ intone as they pass through the Gate into the Kingdom of Heaven. The incredibly drawn-out peroration will either thrill you or kill you. The Venetians loved it: they are still cheering.

—Gary Lemco

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