Sergiu Celibidache Conducts RAVEL & DEBUSSY

by | May 27, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Sergiu Celibidache Conducts RAVEL & DEBUSSY

Program: RAVEL: Alborada del gracioso; Rhapsodie espagnole; Bolero; DEBUSSY: Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un faune; Iberia
Performers: Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
Studio: Ideal Audience DVD 3077968 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 4:3, Color
Audio: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 2.0
Length: 101 minutes
Rating: ****

Taped live at the Cologne Music Triennale, Cologne Philharmonie, 13-14 May 1984, this DVD, directed by Janos Darvas, lovingly captures Rumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996) in a concert of all-Impressionistic music, repertory of which he felt the French incapable of leading with authenticity! 

Having been led to the podium in small steps, Celibidache conducts from a seated position, surrounded by a railing for support. His frailty in person belies the energies of his art, which now emanate from a modest stick technique; rather, except for an occasional flourish from his right arm, all the cues derive from his eyes, his mouth, a nod, a flicker of shoulder, a smile. Often, the baton lies across his lap while the music goes on “without him,” until we realize how thoroughly controlled is every nuance, the tempos slow, taut, stretched into something worthy of the Symbolist poets who inspired many of these works.  The Alborada begins lustily enough, until the middle section hangs in the air; we see the colors emerge from burnished instruments, the castanets, the violins, the oboes and horns.  When the music explodes at the coda, Celibidache is perfect stillness, a Buddha before a Bo tree.  The Afternoon of a Faun proceeds for twice the length of an “ordinary” rendition. But the colors melt into each other like a garden of strange fruit, colored by flute, oboe, harp, and strings. At the conclusion, Celibidache acknowledges the rapturous applause not at all: only his flute principal, French horn, and oboe rise; then, he gestures the entire orchestra to stand.

The Rhapsodie seems to begin several beats after Celibidache’s opening cues, the celesta’s music open, ostinato, while the evening shadows converge and subdue us all.
The Malaguena and Habanera move relatively quickly, but their capacity for eroticism makes itself felt, what Bernstein once called “a desire to leave not a dry seat in the house.” The Feria lingers forever, lasting ten minutes as violas, cellos, and basses and wind instruments converge in diverse harmonic colors. The motor rhythm picks up at the last pages, whips itself forward to a convulsive explosion, and then audience erupts, almost too soon; while Celibidache sits, motionless, only a facial twitch registering his displeasure that such Oneness be shattered by anything so vulgar as praise. Celibidache does rise to stand amidst his orchestra, primus inter pares.

A wicked chord and the longest (almost 30 minutes) Iberia in history proceeds, the muted trumpet announcing a day to be filled with colored streamers and inebriation of various kinds. The streets and by-ways collect the perfumes and odors of festivity and temptation, the oboes weaving snakes in the air. Tambourines and castanets add their own ingredients to the sultry mix of sliding strings.  For several moments, it looks as if Celibidache were leading a viola concerto. The night-piece section lies suspended in time and space. The two principal violins dialogue over huge pedals, a horn or trumpet progression, each of which proceeds at a snail’s pace, but what electricity lies curled in those shell-rings! Again, the celesta heralds a string exhalation of vibrant color, anticipating the full burst of the feria, with pizzicato strings, bells, tambourine, snare drum, and tuba in Technicolor. By the conclusion, it is a visibly tied Celibidache who grudgingly accepts the vigorous applause, standing with back to the audience or half nodding to gesture the Munich players to their collective feet.

Bolero’s opening is something like pppp, so the snare and plucked strings seem invisible, until the flute ushers in the melody proper. Even as the clarinet plays, Celibidache is a statue, his baton hand poised but unmoving. But now the timbres and dynamics are fuller, the motion palpable as we move to bassoon. The clarity and homogeneity of sound pulsates, vibrates, titillates. A different oboe takes a lead part, Celibidache’s insuring each participant his lace in the musical sun. Saxophone, muted cornet, snare, piccolo, trombone, harp, celesta: when the camera pulls back, Celibidache sits in the middle of a musical ring of fire. The crescendo is monotonous, but its parts are pure variety. Only an infrequent gesture for the horns to punctuate louder emanates from Maestro, else it’s as inevitable as a mechanical doom, the musicians rapt upon Celbidache’s face; until the one chord change, where Celibidache lights up, inflamed, the gong swinging. In Munich that day, the crowd at Philharmonie is ecstatic.

–Gary Lemco


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