Sergiu Celibidache has become a cult conductor. Perhaps it is because he had a reputation for playing music slower than anyone else. Perhaps it was because he despised recording and refused to authorize CD releases even of his live performances. Perhaps it was because he required of his orchestra unending rehearsals before performance.
The Romanian-born maestro died at the age of 84 in 1996, having left behind a very few studio recordings but a trove of taped concerts, never meant for public release. Eventually, many were released on the Deutsche Grammophon and EMI labels. Those who have heard them either love them distractedly or despise them profoundly. Few are left indifferent.
It took me a while to jump on the Celibidache bandwagon.
I first made his acquaintance with an EMI recording of the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, which he took at the speed of rush-hour traffic. It is a lugubrious affair. Admittedly, he found a great deal of sonorous sheen in the music but little of the fire that we go to Beethoven for.
Celibidache’s stated aims were to make his orchestra sound “beautiful” playing the music, which, as far as Beethoven goes, is fairly irrelevant.
Celi, as he was called, originally replaced Wilhelm Furtwangler as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic after World War II (and a short reign by the unfortunate Leo Borchard), when Furtwangler was under suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. Celi lasted until 1952, when Furtwangler, cleared of the charges, took back the baton.
Celibidache was influenced not only by the conductors he trained with, but by a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism, which reinforced his conviction that music exists only in the moment of its creation, and that recordings cannot capture the electricity of live performance. This was not just a question of technology, but of spirituality. Live music, for Celi, had a spiritual significance, making recordings something close to blasphemy.
It’s hard for me to know if this is true or not. I never heard Celibidache live. I have only the recordings, and most of them are frustrating at best. His tendency to play slowly, and his insistence on the surface sheen of the music, achieved through endless rehearsals, means his performances often lack much in the way of forward drive, and for most of them, any sense that the music might have any deeper meaning than its erotic surface. His Beethoven, in particular, feels neutered.
Yet, it turns out, Celibidache has the measure of at least one composer: Anton Bruckner. And has that measure as no other conductor has. Like Bernstein and Mahler, Celibidache and Bruckner seem to be soulmates.
Because so many reviewers were raving about Celi’s Bruckner, I bought his EMI Bruckner Fourth on spec. It is a nearly 80-minute Fourth, longer by nearly 20 minutes than even that of Otto Klemperer, a notoriously slow conductor. It absolutely knocked me catawampus.
Bruckner is a composer one comes to late in life. A young man simply will not have the patience for it. The “tunes” are not particularly memorable, and the structure of the symphonies will seem, at a young age, desultory and aimless.
But the problem is that we expect from youth that our music will “go” somewhere, give us some good tunes in the meantime, and surprise us with interesting turns. That pretty well sums up Beethoven.
But Bruckner doesn’t do that, and many poor performances of Bruckner try to make him do that. Instead, Celibidache — and a handful of other great Bruckner conductors — recognizes Bruckner is not a journey, but a place: You enter into his sound world as you enter into a deep forest or a Gothic cathedral and you experience that world in all its corners and cavities.
It is possible to play music very slowly and merely make it dull. Lots of conductors do it in the post-Bernstein era. But it is also possible to do it and keep every musician in the orchestra on the edge of his seat, concentrating fully on every single note as if he were defusing a bomb. This is what Celibidache does with Bruckner. You come away from a performance drained completely. It is an expedition through a sound-universe and you are carrying your own staff and pack.
Such music, played in such a performance, is nearly a religious experience.
You are given a vision of the Burning Bush, the infinite “I am.”
I thought we had long ago left a world that could take a Bruckner without irony. It is that irony that gives Mahler his 20th-century cachet.
But Bruckner gives us a metaphor for the unmediated experience — direct apprehension of the divine. I recognize the irony in my own phrase — and it is the rare musician who can approach the music that way. Just as it is hard to be a true religious believer in an age of irony, so is it difficult to play Bruckner convincingly.
If you have not yet had the pleasure, I recommend to you Celibidache’s EMI Bruckner Fourth. I also recommend his DG Bruckner Eighth, packaged with the Schubert Fifth. It is odd to hear a Schubert B-flat where the slow movement is as long as the other three movements together, but it gives new depth to what has always been a Haydn-ish, breezy symphony. I’m not sure it is appropriate for Schubert, but it is interesting to hear.
As far as the Bruckner Eighth, this is one of the great performances of one of Bruckner’s greatest symphonies — an immense world that seems to extend aurally to the infinite.
I’m probably gushing too much like a schoolgirl, but classical music is supposed to give you a genuine experience, something more than the ordinary, something you will remember for your whole life as a turning point. The Celibidache Bruckner is one of those. Rare, exquisite, raw, profound, strong, lung-shuddering, eye-sobbing. You will feel those Wagner tubas in your sternum, vibrating.