Sergiu Celibidache & Cologne Radio-Symphony Orchestra – Works of SCHUBERT, BLACHER, RAVEL, TCHAIKOVSKY, HINDEMITH, STRAVINSKY, BRAHMS, R. STRAUSS, MENDELSSOHN – Orfeo (5 CD set)

by | Jul 6, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Sergiu Celibidache & Cologne Radio-Symphony Orchestra = SCHUBERT: Overture to The Magic Harp, D. 644; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, D. 125; BLACHER: Paganini Variations, Op. 26; RAVEL: Ma Mere L’Oye; Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 Pathetique”; HINDEMITH: Symphonic Metamorphoses on a Theme by Weber; STRAVINSKY: Firebird Suite; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68; Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45; R. STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20; MENDELSSOHN: Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21 – Agnes Giebel, soprano/Hans Hotter, baritone/ WDR Radio Choir/Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache

Orfeo C 725 085, (5 CDs) TT: 341:08 [Distrib. by Qualiton] ****:

Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996), by dint of musical and philosophical studies in phenomenology and Zen, created his own sound world, one that eschewed all forms of commercialism after 1953. Celibidache’s tenure with the Cologne Radio Symphony lasted 1957-1958, but it yielded exceptional, “live” results, for the simple reason of the conductor’s never settling for mediocrity in any form. From the opening notes of Schubert’s Overture to The Magic Harp (21 October 1957) we become immersed in a tonal world of time and color not quite like any other, even that of Furtwaengler, who achieved by natural personality and tradition what Celibidache acquired through rigorous, academic application. Ravel’s ethos always appeals to Celibidache, and the fairy-tale insularity of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite emanates feverish clarity as well as childlike tenderness. A rich, magical tapestry evolves, culminating in the Le jardin feerique, an ethereal, passionate distillation of longing for Shangri-La. Blacher’s Paganini Variations (1947) opens with the A Minor Caprice played by a violin that immediately evokes all kinds of ironic orchestral tissue in sixteen variants in metric and timbre-based groups, including a seven-part canon for brass and woodwinds in No. 13. With a mountain-goat’s security among the high, rocky terrains of steep mountainsides, Celibidache and his forces negotiate Blacher’s post-WW II tour de resistance with definitive competence.

The Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony completely revises our concept of this huge canvas, with Celibidache’s emphasis on intimate details over huge, spatial lines in the manner of the Russians. Its sonic predecessor is likely the 1938 Berlin Philharmonic inscription with Furtwaengler, but Celibidache pushes the affective envelope further, the sentiment treading a dangerous path near the Abyss of the solipsistic.  Metric tugs of war complement virtuoso playing from the Cologne trumpets and strings; at times, we cannot distinguish between Heaven and Hell. The ppp markings in the score have rarely been so hauntingly rendered, the phrase lengths so molded by a hand akin to that Rodin. As serenely as the Allegro con grazia’s 5/4 figures proceed, the ensuing Allegro explodes from restrained, churning beginnings to become a terrible ineluctable hammer-stroke of Fate. Tchaikovsky is to Celibidache what Mahler is to Bernstein, a Manichean battleground of warring spirits. Consonant with Mahler, the closing Adagio lamentoso marks an emotional collapse and convulsive exhaustion, but the ardent nobility–the double bass pizzicati and tympani–of the struggle endures.

The Hindemith from the concert of 29 September 1968 crackles with confidence, assertive, vital, arrogantly bravura in its effects. What might too easily pass as academic polyphony assumes a hair-raising, etched incisiveness, the timbres of strings, winds, brass, and battery alternately purring and whistling, as Celibidache dictates. The key to the four-movement “suite” is the modally askew Turandot March-Scherzo, realized here with a vigor that borders on the erotic. The last movement, formally entitled Marsch, drives forward with emblazoned colors, all balanced by a severe, illumined rhythmic ferocity–a step away from the opening of Mahler’s Sixth–not to be equaled by the faint of heart. Stravinsky’s Firebird exploits Celibidache’s love for dynamic extremes, the brass and strings evoking shimmering magic and unbridled power. While the surging, cavorting aerial curlicues by the Firebird herself dazzle, the Infernal Dance of King Kashchei scares our pants off. The Lullaby sings to Antony and Cleopatra–Wilcoxen and Colbert–not to children. The voluptuously rising procession of the Finale both hymns and dances in regal terms, Moussorgsky’s Kiev aglow with brush strokes from Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

The C Minor Brahms Symphony, massive, monumental, heroically conceived from its first thrilling chords, announces its epic journey from Darkness to Light. Some will find the Cologne cellos more molasses than cream, the scale all too inflated. But for those a bit tired with thin anemic blood in the Brahms veins, this urgently grand performance will come as  Romantic vindication for a style that may have passed us by. Cut in huge periods on a par with Bruckner–and Brahms himself might resent the comparison to what he called “those boa constrictors”–the first movement emerges out of a soft granite and merges into the very currents of the sea. The Andante begins hesitatingly, only to open its oboe-driven lament across a firmament of nostalgia. Celibidache maintains a dark tension throughout, and even the pauses in the line sing with taut possibilities.  A slight marcato in the realization of the Allegretto adds a wistful flavor to an already rich textural brew. At any moment the idyll may blaze up in the Apocalypse; every flower has its own menace. Celibidache slows the Adagio – Piu Andante opening of the last movement to a crawl; the forces of Creation coalesce into a frightful assemblage of potential energy that the French horns, rolling tympani, flute. and exalted strings will both announce and unleash. The tempo of the elegant hymn is restrained indeed – noble, secure, assured of its promised victory. How closely all these colossal energies resemble the latter half of the German Requiem sixth moment’s grand exertion, “Oh Death, where is thy sting?”   

The concert of 5 October 1958 well provides the most typical Celibidache assemblage of mixed colors: Mendelssohn, Schubert, Strauss, Ravel. The E Major Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream revels in the fantastic, the dynamic explosions, first of soft, diaphanous tints, and then the raucous thrills of imaginary brays: the tumult of a world of misdirected love trying to accommodate itself to a world structure of sense and reason. Schubert’s No. 2 in B-flat Major occupied many Celibidache programs; and his gripping, visceral interpretations raised our consciousness of the work’s depths, its elastic maturity, especially in the pastoral Andante and its subsequent variations, and the darker moments in the Presto vivace last movement. The Don Juan of Strauss provides Celibidache exactly the right proportion of bombast and robust aspiration to show off his virtuoso ensemble. Taking the eighteen-minute symphonic poem as an organic entity, Celibidache integrates its disparate mercurial sentiments into a mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic experience. One gleans the sense of Jove’s hurling aural thunderbolts across the reaches of space. Celibidache’s hand, however, is lighter in this respect than that of Koussevitzky, who often lost the comic sense amidst the rush of notes.  The swirling, sensual sound masses that constitute Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe combine intense transparency with an obsessive, virtually Symbolist expressivity. Apollinaire and Pierre Louys might be conversing on the limits of physical desire. Yet the modal, delicate syntax and timbre panoply of Ravel’s line never sags under Celibidache’s exquisite direction – a tour de force extraordinaire!

Lastly, we have a grand performance (Essen, 28 October 1957) of the Brahms German Requiem, featuring two vocal veterans of the score, Agnes Giebel and Hans Hotter. Originally Celibidache wanted Maria Stader, but her unavailability made Giebel a sound, lyrically attractive, alternate coloratura. In a relatively objective stance, Celibidache allows his gifted chorus to carry the emotive line, adding woodwind, harp, organ, and low string colors as required. For diaphanous sweetness, we have the glowing fourth movement, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen. . .” Or listen to Celibidache’s layering of the huge pedal point on D in the third movement. Tempos are predictably slow, similar to those of his contemporaries, Fritz Lehmann and Wilhelm Furtwaengler. Beauty and consolation command the ethos of this valedictory reading, Giebel and Hotter projecting a studied, virile empathy to their respective soli. The weird waltz-march of All Flesh is Like Grass kept its dynamic levels at cool, so that the emotional explosions benefited by the huge contrast. Hotter actually interrupted a concert tour to participate in the Cologne German Requiem with Celibidache, and his grim, introspective characterization well rivals his classic inscription (1947) with Karajan, and in better sound. Absorbed into his projection of the sixth movement, “We have no continuing city,” he might be enacting a cosmic drama set on Matthew Arnold’s darkling plain. If the Brahms Requiem can ever be said to achieve the spiritual grace of Faure’s Requiem, it occurs in the opening mix of choirs in Celibidache’s final litany, “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herren sterben.” Incandescent with valediction, the performance takes on the surreal cloak of transfigured mourning, even intimations of immortality.  

–Gary Lemco

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