Celibidache’s Aching Ninth

Written on April 13, 2010 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen


An advantage of the Digital Age is that it cheapens the cost and lessens the burden – quite literally – of accumulating material that otherwise one might think twice about procuring. I am sure Old-Schoolers and Luddites disapprove of all this digitalia, but then I am also sure that there were those who greeted Caxton with cries of outrage and unwavering nostalgia for the feel of real sheep’s skin under the hands. At any event, it means that where, once, books may have been left unbought and recordings unheard as a result of weighing up whether one really wanted the additional accumulation in one’s life and living room, now the added encumbrance of a few megabytes is hardly worth a thought.

A case in point: I recently received a new iPod with scads more memory than my old one, leaving me in an expansive mood as I surveyed the open terrain of empty gigabytes, just begging to be filled. Facing such an embarras de richesse, I did something that otherwise I would probably not do: I procured a bunch of recordings from the Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibadache, or Celi to those who know, who died in 1996. Celi is best remembered in conjunction with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, which he led for over fifteen years at the end of a career that was made mostly in the demanding circles of the German musical scene. Now, anyone who has made a career in such venerable orchestral climes deserves to be taken seriously. Familiarising myself with the Celibidache sound was certainly overdue.

A few words by way of background about the eccentric Romanian. He is known essentially for three things. The first is his fervent Buddhism, upon which he expatiated at some length in various places. The second, derived from his subscription to Buddhist transcendentalism, was the profound belief that music must be experienced live; he therefore avoided the recording studio. Third, he chose the slowest tempi of any conductor of note in living memory, possibly ever. Whether Beethoven or Rossini, Mozart or Bruckner, Celibidache rarely met a score that he couldn’t amble through at a snail’s pace. It was this tendency to exceptional prolongation that helped establish his reputation as a meditative transcendentalist, a conductor-philosopher. Don’t say much, and say it very slowly. It worked for Forrest Gump, and it worked for Sergiu Celibidache.

As word spread of the Celi experience, the aura that attached to his conducting was thus imbued with something like the mystical, cultic quality that he himself found in his Buddhist ethos. For classical music aficionados, attending his concerts acquired something like the gourmand’s experience of dining at El Bulli. This was not intentional image-building; Celibidache’s disdain for recordings was certainly heartfelt. But it did not hurt that the Celibidache sound could only be heard (although then for a very long time) in situ. In the US, particularly, where the conductor was virtually unknown for most of his career, the susurrations of the cognoscenti helped build the Celibidache style into legendary stuff. As a result, it is difficult to find material about the conductor that is not encomiastic, veering into outright hagiography.

Despite his refusal to countenance the studio, there are plenty of live recordings available (mostly from his days in Munich). No sooner had he expired than record labels, notably EMI and Deutsche Gramophone, issued numerous recordings, mostly swathed in respectful “in memorium” guise. This spurt helped maintain and even build the aura in various ways. First, it meant that the conductor’s legacy became, for the first time, widely available. Second, it offered grizzled veterans of his concerts the opportunity to confirm that Celibidache only should have been listened to live in the concert hall, and incidentally refute, by way of “you had to be there,” opinions ventured from neophytes and newcomers (such as myself).

Be that as it may, the recordings offer later generations of concert-hall goers the chance to experience the Maestro’s legendary, cultic sound. Thus it was that, having suddenly so much free space on my iPod, I decided it was high time to find out what the fuss was about and experience a little of that Celibidache transcendental pizzazz for myself.

Except for die-hard enthusiasts, most agree that Celi’s interpretation of much of the standard repertoire is more idiosyncratic than profound. Skip his bizarre Beethoven and his shuffling Schubert and go right to the good stuff, which by consensus seems to be Brahms and – above all – Bruckner. Yes, Anton Bruckner, whose own penchant for taking way-too-long to say not-that-much would seem a perfect match for the Celi’s conducting equivalent of watching lichen grow. Now, I like Bruckner very much, his various flaws notwithstanding, and I would agree that he is a perfect candidate for a transcendental reading. But sadly, based on my sample, I conclude that for Celibidache, “transcendental” is confused with “turgid.” Where his tempi in Brahms are merely lethargic, his Bruckner is astonishingly, mind-bogglingly slow. I have read that Celi’s interpretation of the fourth symphony is sine qua non. But that is an easy piece to pull off – by far Bruckner’s most popular and accessible work. No, I was interested in hearing the retiring Austrian’s masterpiece, the monumental unfinished ninth.

Over the course of its history, Bruckner’s ninth has invited an exceptionally wide range of interpretations. At one extreme, there’s Bruno Walter, who obviously had a flight to catch when he clocked the first movement of his 9th in at a mere (yes, mere) 20 minutes. That’s an astoundingly fast performance. Consider that the great Russian maestro Mravinsky, who, having trained his players in the Leningrad Philharmonic to the precision of a Swiss clock and was never one to dawdle through a piece, manages the first movement in just over 23 minutes! More typically, Bruckner’s ninth comes in at about 25 minutes. Compared to this, Celibidache’s performance is not just an outlier, it is truly exospheric:

































If the first movement offers a reminder of one’s mortality, the second movement is so slow it becomes simply irritating, like being stuck in line behind an enfeebled and superannuated woman who insists on making exact change using the smallest denomination coins possible. It also has the rather surreal effect of making the piece as a whole, all eighty (80!) minutes of it, seem like it is written in just one, very, very slow tempo, a gooey morass of sound that after a few minutes has no beginning or end, just a set of relentless, never-ending, lethargic phrases.

I am not the first, of course, to note this. The former New York Times critic John Rockwell didn’t hold his punches in a 1993 review of a DVD of Celibidache’s Bruckner series: 

…at these tempos [Bruckner’s] music loses its structural coherence and its inner life. Mystical revelation is all well and good; it is the stuff of which these symphonies are made. But a certain order and momentum are also needed, a foil for expressivity and a sense that the music is sweeping toward a climax or an epiphany.
The real problem is that Mr. Celibidache reduces mystical grandeur to episodic effects; he confuses inner essence with trivial outer decoration. Such observations, of course, form the basis of the complaints against his entire musical ethos, which in the previous absence of recent recordings could not be subjected to sustained analysis. For those who have admired Celibidache concerts, these disks cannot invalidate his reputation. But they are a severe disappointment.

I agree. But I would add one thing based on listening to his 9th. The problem, as I see it, is that Celi focused on the most mystical-ready moments in the music and then fit his tempi around a reading of that moment in order to exploit it for every possible gasp of feeling. So, for instance, at the end of the glacial first movement, there is a noticeable warming in the music, which is more, I think, than just gratitude that the end is approaching. At such a slow tempo, and with copious rubato, the momentous climax rolls in like a thick fog, enshrouding you in a soundscape that, for these moment at least, is absorbing, inexorable and all-consuming. The effect does feel almost, might one say, transcendental and mystical. Indeed, I would venture that there is no finer reading of the closing  statement of this work. I have excerpted it below, side by side with Jochum’s more traditional reading. But the effect cannot be plucked out in isolation. In order to experience it, one has to have endured the preceding 31 minutes. 



In this case, it is the destination, not the journey that counts, like stretching your legs after an 18-hour flight. Exceptional, yes, but I am unconvinced that it should take so long to get there.

(There is no excuse for his interpretation of the second movement whatsoever; playing a scherzo at such a slow speed is simply self-indulgent nonsense.)

The last movement has the same problems as the first. This movement is quite breathtaking, throwing the listener off-balance with an anguished opening phrase that quickly (well, “quickly”) proceeds to a life-affirming climax that is bottom-heavy in the horns and strings and punctuated with a set of rising trumpet fanfares. For good measure, Bruckner repeats it in case you missed all that life-affirming goodness the first time around. This should be an electric moment, an irresistible ocean of sound with trumpets piercing the indistinct din. On first listening, it is a jarring moment, coming seemingly out of nowhere. When it recurs, halfway through the movement (usually about 11 minutes in, but a good 15 minutes in Celi’s version), I am sure that more than one concert listener, more versed in agile (and short) Mozartian movements than the continental-size canvasses of Bruckner has been fooled into thinking that the return of this horn-blowing, string-suturing fortissimo Anschwellung signals some kind of conclusion. Yet no. It is almost literally the halfway point of the movement. Indeed, it is destined to return a third and last time, in variation: musical Trinitarianism that was doubtless an intentional gesture on Bruckner’s part. At any event, it is one of those “transcendental moments” that Celi supposedly brought to life.

Now, his version is monumentally slow – a dripping-molasses-on-a-cold-day of a tempo. This unremitting plod occasionally turns into something quite remarkable. But almost as quickly, the thread unravels. Consider this excerpt. Celi’s tempo and rubato allow him to linger on the expressiveness of the strings and wrest from the passage an extraordinary lyricism. But when the phrase passes to the horns, it immediately loses its expressive richness and instead seems to wither away, the pizzicato pulsing underneath like a faltering heartbeat:

As for that transcendental, fanfare-punctuated Anschwellung, the dramatic intercession is simply lost in Celi’s muddy trudge. Instead of inexorable life-affirmation, it’s more like a car that is having a hard time starting. Give it more gas, Celi, more gas! Compare his reading again with that of Jochum’s, which played side-by-side is startling for its clarity and momentum. 



I read an online review that I think makes the right recommendation. The reviewer noted, by way of introduction, that he already possessed 60-odd recordings of this work, and that for others with a similar enthusiasm for Bruckner’s old age and age-old masterpiece, this was a necessary addition to their collection. I can hardly disagree with that. But for those struggling along with 50 or less  performances (say 1), the legendary Celi sound, while it offers up a few indelibly memorable passages, mostly serves as an extravagantly languorous reminder that life is short, so make the most of it by not listening to Celibidache.


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