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CD Review

Celibidache In Berlin

The Early Years, 1945-1948

Tibor de Machula, cello
Erna Berger, soprano
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
* Berlin Radio Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
Music & Arts CD-1079 AAD monaural 4CDs: 73:26, 74:20, 75:33, 78:52
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Romanian-born conductor Sergiu Celibidache, a cult figure today (in part, because of his intense dislike for recordings), was a virtual unknown in 1945 when he first appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. (Up until that point, the only major orchestra he had conducted, albeit with great success, was the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.) Wilhelm Furtwängler, the "logical" choice for the position (if not necessarily the best), still was considered to be not sufficiently distanced from the Nazi party, and conductor Leo Borchard, who had stepped into the breach in Furtwängler's absence, had been shot accidentally by an American sentry. All other candidates (Herbert von Karajan must have been one of them) were unavailable or politically unacceptable. On December 1, 1945, Celibidache took the helm. His duties in war-depleted Berlin went beyond rehearsing and performing: he also had to perform administrative tasks for the orchestra, including scheduling and obtaining orchestral parts not available in the Philharmonic's archives.

Because the Philharmonic's usual venues had been damaged or destroyed in the war, the broadcast material preserved here was recorded in Berlin's large radio studios. It has been made available for this Music & Arts release by the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (DRA) in Frankfurt and Berlin. The earliest performance is a Dvořák Cello Concerto (with soloist Tibor de Machula) from November 1945, and the latest is a Debussy La mer from March 1948. (Actually, this set ends with Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque from July 1945, but with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, not the Philharmonic.)

The features that made Celibidache's conducting so individual are to be found throughout these four CDs, albeit not always in their most advanced form. Orchestral balance, dynamic shadings, contrast, and tempo relationships already are among the conductor's preoccupations. The repertoire is not unusual for him, and collectors who know his live Stuttgart and Swedish recordings (from Deutsche Grammophon) and his Munich recordings (from EMI) will not, for the most part, be surprised by what they hear in this collection.

One of my favorites here is the Brahms Fourth, from 11/21/45. The Philharmonic must have been both reassured – in this unsettled period – by the repertoire's familiarity and excited by the conductor's ideas about it. The performance, while tragic, is not fatalistic. In the final movement, an authentic "Celibidache moment" occurs when the conductor drops the music's motion – but not its tension – to almost nothing. Phrasing, like the drawing in and releasing of breaths, also makes this performance memorable, as does a processionally solemn reading of the second movement.

Prokofieff's Classical Symphony (7/6/46) gets a wonderful thinking-through from Celibidache, who infuses it with courtly mockery, but not with slapstick or unkindness. Seven movements from the same composer's Roméo and Juliet ballet also show Celibidache's tenderness and his gift for characterization.

An 11/10/46 performance of Britten's war-related Sinfonia da Requiem produces an understandably moving response from the Philharmonic. At the same time, one ponders how the German orchestra – and listeners – reacted to so specific a work by an English composer. No doubt the power of the performance and the music itself convinced them to be won over.

Other performances worth making special mention of are a tremendously nuanced La mer (and the second of the same composer's Nocturnes), a Haydn 94 that brims with classical weight and bubbling humor, a rough and roistering Till Eulenspiegel, and a reading of the Leonore Overture #3 in which Celibidache uses a long accelerando to reach the allegro of the work's main section. The effect is thrilling, and not at all contrived.

Music & Arts, sensibly eschewing chronological concerns, has chosen to arrange the broadcast material for complementarity. Each disc makes a satisfying program on its own. A minor exception comes with the Glière Concerto for Coloratura Soprano, which has been split between the last two discs. This is unfortunate, but it was done, I am guessing, so as much material as possible could be included. The sound, while dated, presents no significant roadblocks to the enjoyment of the music. There is hum (for example, in Till Eulenspiegel), and tape flutter in the first movement of the Dvořák concerto. None of this is too alarming.

These four CDs are sold for the price of three. The price will not be excessive for Celibidache's admirers.

Copyright © 2002, Ray Tuttle