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CD Review

The Celibidache Edition

Jacqueline du Pré, cello
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
Deutsche Grammophon 469069-2 4CDs
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Life is full of irony – for a conductor who refused to record, Celibidache has appeared in more recordings currently on the market than all but a relative handful of conductors. His avoidance of the studio, of course, like Horowitz's dozen-year withdrawal from the recital stage, actually bolstered his career by giving his musical persona an air of mystery, a quirky defiance of convention: who is this guy who refuses to record? Now, we say, who was this man who refused to record? The answer to that question is given in great part in this interesting DG set – Celibidache was a distinguished conductor who had his own, quite individual ideas on interpreting works of the masters. These performances were all taken from radio broadcasts of live concerts at the Stockholm Concert House, from November 1965 (Sibelius' Second) to March 1971 (Sibelius' Fifth Symphony and Shostakovich's Ninth). Celibidache's tenure as conductor of the Stockholm Radio Symphony exactly fit that span, 1965 to 1971.

Let's begin this survey with the Sibelius Second Symphony. This is one of the most compelling readings of this work you'll ever hear. The sound is mono, the orchestra only decent, but the spirit high and the leadership inspired. Celibidache dared to stretch tempos here to what many would consider the extreme. Only the third movement is paced at fairly traditional tempos. In the end, this reading rivals the old Monteux on RCA, circa 1960, as among the best recordings this work has enjoyed. Davis and Maazel have each done two cycles of Sibelius symphonies, but neither, along with a spate of others, has risen to this inspired level.

The Sibelius Fifth is nearly as successful. It falls a bit short because its epic character in climactic moments – as in the big climax just past the middle of the first movement – don't quite have the impact heard in other recordings. The first Davis recording (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra) is unsurpassed here.

The Franck D minor is full of mystery and dark atmosphere in the first movement, rivaling the controversial Furtwängler recording of this profound work. As many may already know, Franck was a humble guy who was luckless throughout his career, suffering failure after failure, only achieving success a year before his death with his 1889 String Quartet. Run down by a horse-drawn carriage in a Paris street and dying a few months later, the religious Franck did not see this Symphony achieve the wide success it enjoys today. Celibidache captures its dignified gloom, its humble confidence, its restrained joy as well as just about anyone I've heard. For the Franck alone, this set is worth the price of admission.

The Hindemith Mathis der Maler is also a success, but not entirely satisfying. While Celibidache catches the epic character of the piece, he sometimes slights its grandeur with tempos a bit fast, or with playing somewhat insensitive. His Strauss, however, is full of color and humor, and brims with atmosphere and personality in Till. This is truly fine conducting, and even the Swedish Radio Symphony is in fine form. Don Juan features the same kind of committed playing, and Celibidache's reading is perhaps even more masterful.

The Shostakovich Ninth Symphony, a better work than some – even the composer's admirers – will admit, comes across with splendid colors and in playing that may not rival the better Soviet recordings, like the 1960s Kondrashin on Melodiya, but is nevertheless brilliant and thoroughly convincing. The Dvořák Cello Concerto is probably more the show of the late Jacqueline du Pré, who gives a fine and committed performance of this warhorse. Celibidache's contribution is solid throughout, from the dramatic long introduction to the brilliant and colorful close. Du Pré made this recording with Celibidache in November, 1967, just months after she married Daniel Barenboim, and six years before she was stricken with multiple sclerosis, which would end her brilliant career prematurely, and claim her life in 1987 at age forty-two.

In the end, this collection of Celibidache recordings is as fine as there is available from this unique artist. The sound on this set, even in the mono Sibelius Second, is quite good. The notes, which feature commentary from the conductor's son, are informative. This set is indispensable to fans of the conductor and a worthwhile purchase for those interested in the late 19th- and early-20th century repertory.

Copyright © 2001, Robert Cummings