Celibidache Conducts Prokofiev & R. Strauss (1970)

by | Mar 24, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Celibidache Conducts Prokofiev & R. Strauss  (1970)

Program: PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major; R. STRAUSS: Death and Transfiguration
Performers: RAI Torino Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
Studio: Opus Arte DVD OA 0979 D  (Distrib. by Naxos)
Video: 4:3 Black&White
Audio: PCM Mono
Duration: 77 minutes
Rating: ****

A rare television moment from Rumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996), here in 1970 in Turin, Italy, where he leads a well-rehearsed radio ensemble in music by Prokofiev and Strauss. The visuals are not particularly distinct–a bleached-out black and white with mono sound, but it’s a treat to see Celibidache in action.  Despite a reputation for slow tempos, Celibidache moves the first movement of the Prokofiev briskly, often switching his baton to his left hand so as to urge the music more directly bare-handed.  The camera focuses on his busy woodwind section, especially the principal oboe and his surrounding French horns.

The Allegro marcato second movement proves a real tour de force, with Celibidache’s sleek dips and left-hand gestures and fluttery right hand to move the music–especially the snare drum–cavalierly through its paces. The transition from the perky middle section back to the pesant da capo became a Celibidache specialty, a graduated romp in triplets until a frenzied outburst, tutti, and flying figures everywhere, heavily punctuated by sliding and whirling brass. The Adagio elongates to occupy the heart of the symphony, elastic and poignant. Clarinet and bass-clarinet and the responsorial flute and bassoon capture the frames as they explore the eerie melancholy of the music. Major and minor harmonies rise, clash, and reconcile under a firm, chromatic line. Both martial and lyrical, the Adagio achieves a kind of agonized breathing under Celibidache, who manipulates the various orchestral lines with a mere frown or twitch of the lip.

Occasionally, the camera uses double-focus to superimpose the conductor and his players onto the same passage. Light figures open the last movement Allegro giocoso, derived from the opening movement and now become a kind of chorale with diviso cellos. Then Celibidache leans into his clarinet and bassoon to start the scherzando main subject, the flute’s giving the secondary, lyrical tune. By the third repetition of the main theme, the orchestra shudders with electric momentum, and the clopping, swirling syncopations quite sweep us into a jubilant, rousing peroration eminently worthy of the composers intentions.

From the opening, insistent tympani beats over which Celibidache’s lead is superimposed, we know this Death and Transfiguration will be one of those titanic, long-drawn epic battles of C Minor and C Major, in the manner of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The camera lingers over the harp and the transitions to flute and violin. Steadily, Celibidache prepares the orchestra for its first convulsive incursion by fitful fever onto the dying man of the Ritter poem that inspired the Strauss tone-poem.  The music gallops and leaps, furioso, the first of several climaxes–or anti-climaxes–that mark the soul’s progress towards eternity. Now the flute shares the double-exposure with Celibidache, signifying the memories of youth and aspiration, suspended in harmonies redolent with Debussy. A heroic fanfare ensues, builds, and attains a mystical nobility and passion all its own shot from long-range by the rear camera. After the return of the mortal coils, the death stroke occurs over a pedal point created by double-bassoon, tuba, double basses, and repeated gong strokes. A graduated crescendo takes us to the music’s apotheosis, a warmly glowing C Major rife with idealized fulfillment.

— Gary Lemco

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