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The Last Adagio

Sergiu Celibidache, The Art of Sergiu Celibidache (Arlecchino)

Music review, March 8, 1996

The word went out on Usenet recently that conductor Sergiu Celibidache was in poor health and about to retire. If the news is true, it marks the end of a long and peculiar career. Most great artists begin with a cult following and then achieve popular success; for the last five decades Celibidache has been steadily going the other way. People once thought he'd be the natural successor to legendary poets of the orchestra like Toscanini and Furtwangler; these days most classical listeners think he turned out to be a sham or, if they're in a more tolerant mood, a lunatic.

There are a lot of reasons. He disapproves of recorded music on principle and demands to be heard in person or not at all; he refuses to sanction live recording at his concerts and has apparently never set foot in a studio, even to see what one looks like. This means that all of the dozens of Celibidache recordings on the market are bootlegs, with everything that implies in terms of bad sound and audience noise. It's not a good way to consolidate a reputation in these digital times. Then too--for reasons possibly not unconnected with this permanent lack of a record deal--he didn't end up as principal conductor of a world-class orchestra, the way somebody of his self-evident brilliance should have expected; instead he's spent much of his career trying to coax greatness out of noncontenders like the Munich Philharmonic and the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. But most of all, his style has grown increasingly exaggerated over the decades, to the point of self-parody and then wildly beyond. His concerts since about 1975 have been unfathomably strange. You sometimes aren't sure afterward whether you attended a performance or a hallucination.

This is why a new series from the Italian label Arlecchino, called "The Art of Sergiu Celibidache," is especially welcome. There have been seven CDs so far, all concerts from the first half of his career--which is to say, when he was still in sensor range. The standouts among the ones I've heard are a 1972 performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade and a 1970 performance of Dvorak's New World Symphony. The sound quality isn't ideal, but it's pretty good; and they do manage to demonstrate why Celibidache was once rated so highly. If he lacks Toscanini's architectural precision or Furtwangler's religious intensity, he makes up for it with lyricism and passion. The performances have a sumptuous and swirling pace, a headlong attack on the crescendos, an impossibly sweet lingering over the slow movements. He's able to draw out unsuspected drama from the most wearisomely familiar material, and when there's just not enough drama to be found he invents more: he can frequently be heard in the background yelling encouragement to the orchestra when they're not approaching the climaxes eagerly enough. It's wonderful stuff, and I hope more disks follow--after all, Arlecchino's series on the little-known conductor Hermann Abendroth has already reached volume 19.

But even more impressive--it stands as a kind of summation of his early style--is a 1971 performance of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony on Arkadia. This is one of the best performances of Bruckner I've ever heard, and a particularly daring one since Celibidache deliberately slows down a work that's so slow to begin with that it's on the edge of lapsing into a coma. But he somehow holds together the interminably long legato lines that are gravely oscillating between Bruckner's two available moods of vague exaltation and gloomy grandeur, gathering them into an atmosphere of impending doom. The enormously prolonged crescendo that climaxes the adagio movement is built into such a towering cataclysm that it's like watching God's own thunderstorm rise over the horizon and bear straight down on you. This is the sort of apocalyptic performance that makes you picture the conductor and orchestra being carried off on stretchers after the last curtain call.

Such absolute mastery makes you wonder what Celibidache could possibly do next--a question that seems to have been troubling him too, because it was in the mid-1970s that he began wandering off the map. To follow him you have to do some exploring on the fringes of the record industry, among the small and dubious classical labels that specialize in "live performances," i.e., bootleg recordings. You meet up with some shady characters out there--at least you find yourself in disturbingly close contact with people you've never been introduced to. The bootlegger who taped some of Celibidache's 1980s concerts for the Exclusive label, for instance, was a nervous sort who seemed to think he was smuggling cocaine rather than orchestral music. In several recordings he can be heard rustling his program, readjusting the tape recorder to keep it hidden, drumming his fingers, coughing tensely, and now and then drawing a loud breath, presumably when an usher passes nearby--his presence is so intimate that if you listen on headphones you'll feel like you're having unsafe sex.

And yet even this turns out to have its charm, when the magic of the concert takes over and your companion forgets to make noise. He's surely there, after all, only because he's a fan, and he's as enchanted as anyone by the beauty and mystery of Celibidache's later style. In these performances the risky approach of the Bruckner Seventh has hardened into doctrine: he's moving through the repertoire work by work and deliberately distorting them all. He slows down the tempi, prolongs every climax into a kind of ultrafortissimo avalanche, turns pauses into rest stops so prolonged you can go out for coffee. Sometimes this makes the most boringly familiar pieces reveal unsuspected glories, like one of those stop-motion films where drops of milk blossom into strange crowns and flower tops. And unfamiliar and minor works are sometimes shocked into displaying a unique high-flown grandeur--rather like what sometimes happens in dreams, where an idiotic tune will suddenly swell and resound with florid richness, as though a TV theme song had been reorchestrated by Mahler.

A 1980 concert of Debussy's La mer on Artists is typically dazzling. I'm so sick of this piece that all I normally notice about it are its flaws: its infuriating tastefulness, Debussy's prissy unwillingness to risk for one moment the taint of vulgarity. But these snipings are decisively erased by Celibidache's roaringly effective performance. He treats La mer as a mega-impressionist explosion of turbulent color, surgingly powerful where Debussy is picturesque, rough and unfinished wherever Debussy is primly hesitant. He drives the orchestra into wild peaks of excitement, which subside only to reveal the enigmatic lyrical currents that will shortly build into the next spectacular salvo. I've never heard La mer more oceanic. I would call it the best I've heard, the equal of the Bruckner Seventh, except for the eerie feeling I get that Celibidache really doesn't care all that much about Debussy. He's playing La mer this way because it's how he plays everything now: like a phaser whose only setting is overload.

A less fortunate example of this style is also on Artists, a disk called Celibidache in Chicago, which records a 1989 performance he gave here of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. This is a crash course in what can go wrong when a conductor meets an uncongenial piece and tries to wrestle it into shape. A quick conductor can get through Pictures in around 30 minutes; Celibidache stretches it out to a punishing 45. All the charm of Pictures is in its quick swoops from the playful to the ersatz majestic and back again, but Celibidache monotonously blasts his way through this landscape as though he were laying down a superhighway. The "Ballet des poussins" sounds like a procession of elephants dragging themselves to the graveyard. I don't know of a drearier performance of Pictures--or really of anything--by a major conductor, and the stultifying atmosphere isn't helped by the noise of an audience so restless you'd swear the concert is being given on a ship at sea.

Yet when I was listening to the disk again for this review I began to wonder. There is one moment of authentic Celibidachean wildness: "Le grande porte de Kiev," which he builds up with his typically visionary overkill as though it were the gate of Xanadu or of Hell. While I still hated it, I found myself vaguely thinking that it was the fault of Mussorgsky and Ravel for writing a piece too frail to sustain Celibidache's love of grandeur. It's a real tribute to a conductor's magic if you blame the composers for a conductor's mistakes.

When a frail or minor piece turns out to be equal to what Celibidache wants to do to it the result can seem like a revelation. Two of the best 1980s concerts on Exclusive are of trivial Bruckner works, the Third Symphony and the Mass no. 3 in F Minor, and Celibidache persuades you (as long as your trance lasts) that both of them are as somberly titanic as the great symphonies.

Exclusive also has one of my favorite Celibidache concerts of all, and it too is of a lesser piece: a darkly magical performance of Faure's Requiem, where the long, impossibly distended vocal lines become as mournful and dreamy as streamers of moonlit cloud. It has all his old poetry and a concentrated dose of his new mood of deepening and half-disclosed mystery. If people die in Wonderland, this is what's played at the funeral.

It may seem strange that a conductor whose natural mode is frenzied exuberance should succeed so well at melancholy music. But that's what's most fascinating about these later concerts: there's something sad in all of Celibidache's best performances. The point of his experiments sometimes seems to be to find an unsuspected richness of sorrow in the sunniest music; and the longer he has brooded over the classics of the repertoire, the more sorrow he has found. Sometimes he strikes a reservoir so vast you think he'll never get to the end no matter how long he goes on playing it. In a 1990 performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor sadness seeps through every dance and fugue, as though there's nothing at the bottom of any music but heartbreak.

I can't help thinking that this melancholy is autobiographical. It may have nothing to do with his own career--which for all I know he regards with complete satisfaction. But I believe it does reflect a kind of general sorrow over what he's seen happen to the whole field of classical music over the course of his career. Since he began conducting, the great orchestral music of the 19th century has been reduced from the mainstream of the Western tradition to a coterie taste: an only slightly better draw than klezmer music or Tuvan throat singing. Classical performance continues, but young conductors now play the standard repertoire like culture-dispensing androids, their concerts acoustically indistinguishable from their latest digital CD. Young composers, meanwhile, can't work up enthusiasm for any Western music later than Gregorian chant. (The only people who think 19th-century romanticism is still a living idiom are composers of film scores.) There were a lot of reasons for this collapse--the absolute refusal of audiences to accept atonal music, the absolute certainty of modernist composers that it was the only possible way to write--but whatever the cause Celibidache has watched the music he loved dwindle to the point of extinction. He started out as the crown prince, and he's ended up as the last of his tribe.

Maybe this is why he still refuses to record: he's the one remaining craftsman of handmade orchestral music. He conducts everything as though it will never be heard again the way he hears it: no matter what he happens to be playing that night, he treats it as the last grand allegro left to us, the most exquisitely sweet and final adagio in the repertoire. He lingers over it all with preposterous, agonizing love as though in a doomed bid to make the audience understand what they're giving up forever. I for one think the outlook for classical music isn't quite that dire. But I can't deny that the performances he's given in this mood have been unique: a poetry of twilight and nightfall, when everything familiar grows strange.