I contend that people have never performed the 9th of Beethoven yet, and I'm going to prove that to you with the score. Are you content with that? Are you content that an idiot like Toscanini ruled sixty years long above everybody else? I am not. I am not content that the world has not discovered that music is not an amusement or a source of joy or satisfaction. It is much higher than that.
In this regard, I will tell you a story. As a young man, Sergiu Celibidache heard Furtwängler’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth every night, and, every night, it was different, in particular as far as the tempo was concerned. Thereupon, Celibidache asked, “Herr Doktor Furtwängler, how do you determine the tempo?” Furtwängler responded: “Depending on how it sounds.” It took years until I understood the deep, philosophical significance of this remark. I believe that musicians come to terms with tempo far too soon. One must, however, also establish the sound content to a much greater extent. The decision on tempo is last. Only at the moment when I comprehend the piece, the content, the sound—consequently everything that belongs to it—do I ask the question, “What tempo suits this?”
From the first peremptory drum roll of Rossini's La Gazza LAdra overture, it is clear that the brilliance of Celibidache (cheh-lee-bee-dah-keh) is no myth. The performance is almost preternaturally nuanced, unfolding with a sure sense of logic and purpose. Even during the patented Rossini crescendos, Celibidache maintains a calm yet iron control, putting the listener in mind of Richard Strauss's dictum that only the audience should sweat at a concert, never the conductor. In the first section of Debussy's Iberia, Celibidache's unerring grasp of detail evokes a Spanish haze that shimmers like the heat off a Madrid sidewalk in midsummer. The cool, nocturnal redolence of the slow movement, Les parfums de la nuit, hangs suspended in the air until dispersed by the boisterousness of the finale.
"Sergiu had it all," she muses, "a fantastic sense of humour, four doctorates in philosophy, psychology, higher mathematics and musicology - and then music, which was his life and mine. And a good heart - he would give the shirt off his back if someone needed it. He was a Buddhist - and also a little bit eccentric, but maybe so am I. He remains to me an idol and a genius."
Were they lovers, I wonder indiscreetly? "That will remain private until the day I die," she smiles. "You know he had a wife? She was always around from the day we met, always."
"I do recall my first rehearsal with him, I had come from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Karajan, wanting to work with Celibidache, but I had no idea what it meant. It meant four or five days' rehearsal, and each time we performed a symphony again we had to rehearse it as if it were the first time. He wanted a new experience to come out of the music with every performance. What I liked about him was that he always called us by our first names, not by our instrument. It made us feel human, but he wanted something in return. We were not just to play our own notes but to listen where our instrument stands in relation to the entire orchestra. He wanted us to think for ourselves, rather than just being the executive branch. We had to consider the music in its entirety, like the conductor, and he got mad when he found we were just playing our notes. Once or twice I had to tell him not to scream at the first violins so much, because the poor guys got so upset that I was afraid they would eventually become too scared to ever play freely again. What he did not understand is that you have to balance compliments and punishment when you rehearse."
"For three years, I sat in on Celibidache's rehearsals and watched him," says Traub. "That's how I learned how to make music with an orchestra: I learned that conducting is not a visual thing, it isn't that a hundred sit there and watch the conductor's baton, simply following his hand motions."
So what does happen up on the stage?
"Conducting is an acoustic thing. There is a musical line in the creative work, and every musician has to listen and know exactly what it is. The conductor's job is to find this line - this sort of musical path that has to be constantly watched over - and to lead the musicians down that path. This explains how a violinist from the second violin can make music with the oboe, and if at one point the flute has a main role in this line, everyone has to listen to it and go with it. If you are able to stay on that path, you also captivate the listeners: the ear, like the eye, can only concentrate on a single element of the totality, so it is forbidden for this path to be blurred and disconnected. If you succeed, the music is not measured at all in terms of time. The dimension of time is lost, and you live an experience that only exists in the present."
Clocking in at a good 20 minutes longer than the norm, the Verdi is by far the slowest version on record. In Celi's patient hands, the work emerges as reverential and spiritual but utterly drained of its fundamental operatic drama. As with nearly all of his work, while hardly idiomatic, it refocuses our conception, here away from contrast and sudden mood changes to an overriding sense of overall structural continuity. As throughout all these releases, the orchestral playing is consistently superb – consider the careful layering of the brass at the beginning of the "Tuba mirum." The precision and cohesion of the Munich Philharmonic Chorus is astounding – witness their powerful rolled "r"s at the opening of "Rex tremendae" and the exaggerated sibilance in "Dies irae." Curiously, despite Celi's professed antipathy both to text and to the recording studio, the "mix" constantly favors the soloists, who sing boldly with wide vibrato, evoking control-room manipulation of the balance, although presumably we hear the concert-hall sound the conductor carefully crafted.
As if in anticipation of a need to justify a Mozart Requiem lasting nearly 67 minutes, the notes (by Patrick Lang) explain Celi's defense of slow tempos as required to absorb the essence of a rich, variegated work; consequently, recordings always seem too slow, since they can't convey all the tonal phenomena of a live performance. Fair enough. But is the work to which Mozart devoted his final days really all that complex a work, or rather a sincere and relatively straight-forward expression of faith, an earnest summation of his aesthetic, refined and accentuated by the bizarre circumstances of its commission and the composer's inability to complete it? In any event, as with the Verdi, this account weighs in as by far the slowest on record. The relative timings of the movements remain fairly constant with his 56-minute 1962 Milan (Arkadia) and 63-minute 1987 Munich (Artists Live) concerts, but the added gravitas invests this final 1995 performance with a spiritual beauty in which time seems more suspended than a tangible factor.
The Bach, in contrast, severely confounds expectations, running nearly ten minutes faster than typical modern instrument versions. Textures are luminous, vibrato minimal and harpsichord and soloists pushed well back into the resonant acoustic.
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