The Celibidache mystique

Celi

Celibidache with the Berlin Phil, 4th December 1945.

Following on from my posts on conductors, and their fortunes under Nazism, another conductor who contributed greatly to the “maestro myth” was Sergiu Celibidache (1912–96; see herewiki, and many articles, e.g. here).

In his chapter on “The mavericks” in Norman Lebrecht’s stimulating book The maestro myth, he compares Celibidache—revered as “an idiosyncratic idealist, almost a musical saint”—somewhat unfavourably with Karlos Kleiber and Klaus Tennstedt. While some of my own comments here may seem less than reverent, the intensity of Celibidache’s vision made a welcome antidote to the blandness of many identikit maestros.

A Romanian, he trained in Berlin under the Reich from 1936. After the defeat of Germany, the Berlin Phil (“never a Nazi orchestra”—see this detailed article, on a useful site), struggled to revive in a city devastated by the war. Leo Borchard was temporarily appointed as chief conductor; but when he was accidentally shot dead by an American sentry at a checkpoint on 23rd August 1945, and with other local conductors tainted by their links with the Nazi regime, the young, inexperienced Celibidache, as an “untainted neutral citizen”, was soon chosen to take charge.

From 1947, when the great Furtwängler was deemed sufficiently de-Nazified to return to the stage, they worked harmoniously together, although Celibidache’s efforts to remould the orchestra met with resistance.

His last concert with them was the Brahms Requiem on 29th November 1954—the day before Furtwängler died. Karajan, a streamlined corporate prospect (cf. Stravinsky’s reported comment on his Rite of Spring) despite his well-attested links with Nazism, was chosen to take over as chief conductor, whereupon Celibidache flounced off in a 38-year huff. He went on to work with several orchestras, notably the Munich Phil from 1979—a fruitful relationship marred by the ignoble episode of his dismissal of the trombonist Abbie Conant.

The Celibidache myth was cunningly burnished by his refusal to make commercial recordings after 1950 (“listening to a recording is like going to bed with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot”. Discuss)—though a lot of his performances have since surfaced. Lebrecht’s conclusion is typically reserved:

He is a showman, pure and simple, with an eccentric, though effective, mode of self-projection.

* * *

From 1939, in the unlikely context of the Nazi regime, Celibidache had learned about Zen under the influence of his guru Martin Steinke (Daojun 道峻)—cf. other early Western Zen devotees such as R.H. Blyth, Eugen Herrigel (the latter a genuine Nazi supporter), and J.D. Salinger, and later worthies like Gary Snyder and Alan Watts. Perhaps pundits made more of Celibidache’s interest in Zen than he did.

Celi with monk

Apparently in Japan, 1980s? Source here—anyone know more about this image?

Celibidache was among several fine conductors who performed from memory. Here he is with the Munich Phil in Brahms St Anthony variations—a wonderful piece:

and while we’re about it, here’s Furtwängler’s version with the Berlin Phil in 1954, shortly before he died:

Passing over Celibidache’s rare excursions into the baroque, such as Bach’s 2nd orchestral suite (here) and the opening of the B minor mass (here), he favoured slow tempi for the romantic repertoire too—his rendition of the first movement of Tchaik 6 lasts no less than 25 minutes:

Bruckner 7 was perfect for him (cf. this article by Tom Service, as well as my post Trauma, including Furtwängler conducting the Adagio in 1942 and my own memories of playing it in the NYO under Rudolf Schwarz). Along with many treasures such as the Rattle–Sellars–Padmore staged Matthew Passion, another boon of the Digital Concert Hall site (currently offering free access for a month) is Celibidache performing the symphony in 1992 on his return to the Berlin Phil after an absence of 38 years.

Bruckner 7 score

Coda of the Adagio, with magical pizzicato in the bass.

On the same site, do watch this documentaryfeaturing interesting comments from the musicians on Celibidache’s relationship with the orchestra following the war—with archive footage such as Menuhin rehearsing the Brahms concerto in 1946 (more here). But the core of the film is Celi’s detailed rehearsing of Bruckner 7 for the 1992 concert; in extreme contrast to the great Rozhdestvensky (and, you might suppose, to Zen), he demanded a lot of rehearsal time. *

Call Me Old-Fashioned, but Celibidache’s laborious approach to achieving a “transcendent experience” made a novel take on Zen and the Art of Rehearsal that the Tang masters would hardly have recognised. S-Simon Rattle, the orchestra’s chief conductor from 2002, adopted a very different style of working with musicians; click here for their Bruckner 7 at a 2014 concert in memory of his predecessor the great Claudio Abbado.

 

* OK, now I’m going to don my Jaded London Muso hat (indeed, here it is )—German musicians may be more accustomed to lengthy rehearsals than we Brits (Celi’s relationship with the LSO was not always smooth, a possible source for one of musos’ favourite maestro-baiting stories). Still, in the Bruckner rehearsal, as he goes over and over the opening few bars of the symphony, one can almost see them muttering to each other, “FFS, at this rate it’s gonna take us another 38 years just to get to the end of the movement…” (cf. this story).

Celibidache’s interminable instructions (sometimes evocative, sometimes less so) are just the kind of thing that orchestral players resent, helpless captives of a monologue. With a London orchestra such verbosity may lead to passive resistance. Small and Nettl have likened orchestras to factories or plantations in their unquestioning submission to an all-powerful boss in the service of a Higher Cause.

As conducting has come to be considered a less dictatorial, more collegiate task, nowadays many conductors try to work out how to achieve the result they envisage by relying more on their own gestures rather than on words; when the whole object is to achieve rapport, didactic cajoling can be alienating. It’s as if some conductors keep having to stop to tell musos how to play because they can’t manage to express it by conducting effectively. It doesn’t seem like a good way for a conductor to endear himself to them—

or maybe Celibidache was just exacting his revenge on them for having chosen Karajan instead of him

Still, it’s good that he made an effort to get them to control their vibrato (film, from 25.08). And the concert sounds great—the orchestra must have been so relieved that they could finally just play the piece without constant interruptions from the maestro.

 

 

7 thoughts on “The Celibidache mystique

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