SERGIU CELIBIDACHE: musical phenomenon or fraud?

Some forty years or so ago I attended a series of concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall featuring the LSO under the highly controversial Romanian conductor-composer (also teacher and music theorist) Sergiu Celibidache, whose performances were often – to quote Debussy – ‘slower than slow’. They were also in many ways revelatory, but more about that in a moment. Celibidache usually refused to release his performances on commercially available discs, claiming that a listener could not have a “transcendental experience” outside of the concert hall. Zen Buddhism was a significant influence on his thinking, both musically and philosophically.

If Furtwängler and Huberman were sceptical about so-called canned music, Celebidache was positively paranoid about it. Among the few commercial recordings he made was the Brahms Violin Concerto featuring the young (and recently deceased) Ida Haendel, who adored him and claimed in interview that his prophecy that she would only grasp the musical essence of the Brahms once she turned forty, or thereabouts, was spot-on. But back to those concerts. Most memorable was a sequence of pieces from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet ballet, ‘Masques’ (which was encored) taken at a teasingly slow tempo – it had people giggling in the aisles – and an account of the ‘Tomb Scene’ that was virtually powerful enough to shake the Royal Festival Hall’s foundations. That said, you had to be there. I’ve since heard a radio recording of the same concert and the effect as recorded doesn’t quite match up. Debussy, Dvorák, Hindemith, Sibelius and Verdi also featured. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be hearing this sort of music-making post-war. It’s surely the product of a far earlier age.’ So, what do you reckon, a visionary who viewed and felt music ‘on the slant’ (to paraphrase the poet Emily Dickinson) or a poseur, to quote my dear friend Tully Potter?

Another encounter found me working late on evening in the basement archive at Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers (where I was employed for near-on nineteen years). I had a radio with me, switched it on and ‘Celi’ was conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius Five. I kid you not, but never have the work’s closing minutes affected me more profoundly than they did on that memorable occasion. You’ll know the passage which is said to have been inspired by the sound of swan-calls, as well as a specific instance when Sibelius witnessed sixteen swans taking flight at once. All I’ll say is that I was suddenly transported, even flown skywards, so magnificently effective was Celibidache’s elevated way of sustaining the music.

Years later when I worked with the violinist-conductor Christian Gansch, a lovely guy, who was at the time a significant force at Deutsche Grammophon, I told him about  this performance. Christian had played in the Munich Philharmonic under ‘Celi’ and was in the process of releasing his recordings involving other orchestras (Bruckner, Brahms, Ravel etc) for the yellow label. He soon tracked the Sibelius down too, coupling it with the Second Symphony, now one of my most treasured cds. Then there was the Munich PO/Warners CD of Bruckner’s Fourth, the slow, ritual march of the finale’s coda initially all-but unrecognisable. I remember playing it to Bruckner-loving friends who thought it was …. wait for it …. Gorecki! Then again they hated modern music, Gorecki 3 was at that time all the rage, and they probably meant the reference as a slur.

So, to recall my challenge: Sergiu Celibidache, musical phenomenon or fraud? Do let me know which side of the fence you’re placed.

19 thoughts on “SERGIU CELIBIDACHE: musical phenomenon or fraud?

  1. The YouTube ‘archive’ of Celibidache is revelatory. Try his Enescu in which he almost dances off the podium. However his Bruckner is something else. I saw Klemperer conduct the 9th in London in, I think, the early 1970s, so I have a benchmark for slow tempi and only great conductors can sustain the tension and momentum at what sometimes seems achingly slow tempi.


    1. neiltingley

      Klemperer hacked big chunks from Bruckner 9 is his later years. His NYC (US premier ?) of B9 is pretty electric but sound is grim even for and 1940s.


  2. Thanks Peter. Yes that Enescu is extremely exciting. By benchmark for Bruckner 9 is for me Kubelik and the VPO and more recently Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin where that final agonising discord positively blazes. Best. Rob

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have always been curious about the enigmatic Celibidache. I was thrilled that my friend, John De Lancie, then President of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia traveled to Munich to convince the maestro to finally make his American debut with the school orchestra. Maestro replied: “but you know, I need 26 rehearsals”. Then I read the interviews maestro gave to the
    press in Philadelphia, and started to worry. Celibidache was quite outspoken and compared one of the major conductors of the day to Coca Cola (meaning all PR) and expressing admiration only for Stokowski. I attended the Carnegie Hall rehearsal with great expectation. I was amazed that in the opening of Tristan’s Prelude maestro could not get the wind chord to start together, even after many repeats. But I saw what was happening.
    From Berlin he had escaped to Peru and conducted there for a very long time. While presently the orchestra is one of the very best in the region, at that time in the 40s it was amateurish, and maestro had to use larger and larger gestures to get across. That took its toll, and his gestures
    had remained huge.
    But on the other hand a Rossini overture sparkled with amazing brilliance. The entire concert was a revelation, to this day one of the most amazing, inspired concerts I have ever heard.
    I told John (legendary oboist of the Philadelphia) I love to conduct the Curtis Orchestra, I was so impressed by them, and had not worked with the group since my student days at Curtis. Three months later I was in front of the orchestra, and what Celibidache had obtained from them was
    still there, in the young musicians’ minds: the most ravishing pianissimos, perfect intonation (one of Celibidache’s trademarks), immediate ensemble coordination. I did Sibelius First Symphony with them and other works.
    Many years later, Celibidache finally came back to America with his Munich Philharmonic,
    which he had also transformed into an amazing ensemble.


    1. Lovely reminiscences there José, and very telling. A great sense of an evolving relationship between a conductor and his players. It’s amazing how while performances of large works can disappoint a familiar overture takes flight. I recall hearing Menuhin conduct a Beethoven symphony, I think it was the Pastoral. It was pretty good though nothing special and we certainly didn’t expect an encore. As I left my seat I could hear the quiet opening strains of Rossini’s An Italian in Algiers overture, and the whole performance turned out to be utter magic. It was as if a good conductor had suddenly become a great one. I’ll never forget it. Best wishes. Rob


  4. Robert Roy

    Hi Rob.

    I’m sure it was you who played the Celi Sibelius 5 on Radio3 a number of years ago. Yes, it WAS unbelievable! Alas, the cd seems to go for astronomical prices so I’ve not managed to hear it again. One day, I’ll find it!

    I was lucky enough to find some of the DG Celi live discs but, to be honest, they never really made much of an impression on me. (MY loss!) I suspect that you had to be there.

    Imagine if the Late, great Ms. Haendel and Celi had recorded a cycle of violin concertos when she was at her peak! Such a loss.


    Robert Roy


    1. Thanks Robert. Well because of your prompt I will look out that Sibelius 5 again. Not sure when I’ll play it on the programme, but hopefully this year. If I see a spare copy I’ll snap it up for you.
      Best wishes, Rob.


  5. neil

    I’ve no right to comment because I’ve never listened to a Celi performance without Michelangeli. Their relationship was fascinating. Celi used to say ABM as the greatest artist alive. He spoke about ABM’s superhuman sense of touch and feeling for an instrument. Their collaboration was yielded great performances, several of which are on Youtube (The LSO Ravel, Swedish Emperor etc) When people start going supernatural I switch off: I want to get them in a lab and test all this anecdote to see if there really is any substance to it! But if you ask if he’s a fraud? No definitely not. He clearly was deeply invested in his art and was true to himself in all respects. I will dig out the Sibelius 5. A Rob tip is always a must listen!


    1. That’s most kind Neil. And thanks for the Michelangeli reminder. I fully share your enthusiasm. I’ve seen many great pianists live (Horowitz, Argerich, Rubinstein, Cherkassky, Serkin, Annie Fischer and so on) but a South Bank recital by ABM in March 1973 beat the lot. The programme? the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Faschingswank aus Wien by Schumann and the Brahms Ballades. The piano suddenly became an organ – the volume that ABM drew from the instrument was colossal yet … never a suggestion of percussive overkill.You can hear it for yourself at, though the sound is sub-standard. Unfortunately I missed the concerts with Celi but I can imagine how wonderful they must have been (I will check out YouTube). Best wishes. Rob


  6. Robert

    The very first time I went to Paris when was 21 I went to the Sorbonne Amphitheatre and heard a concert with a conductor I had never heard of. Schubert Unfinished Symphony and Four Berg Early Songs. Interval. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and in the middle of the second movement everyone knew this was great Beethoven! Complete standing ovation as soon as the last note finished and so much cheering. Then we were treated to FOUR encores. This was one of the greatest concerts of my life. Years later I realised who the conductor was – Celibadache!



    Thank you for your interesting article. The first problem I had as a junior concert goer was how the hell you pronounced his name as he appeared very rarely in the UK and there were no records of his to play on the radio.
    I went to several of the LSO series in the 1970’s and recall an amazing Mathis der Maler and also Faure’s Requiem which I had not heard before and have never heard since. I was at the concert that featured the Romeo and Juliet Suite but have no recollection of that at all. I must look out my programmes to recall what else was played. Dvorak Symphony 7 has just come to mind.
    The question of his tempi is interesting – I watched a broadcast of his return to conduct the Berlin Phil in Bruckner 7 which went on and on and on – I do prefer my Bruckner to have more impulse as otherwise longeurs set in but then I was also present at the notorious Bernstein travesty of the Enigma Variations which also battered the space/time continuum.
    He was certainly an interesting musical personality.


    1. Yes Eddie I too was at the Hindemith, Prokofiev and Dvorák concerts, but not the Fauré I regret to say. And I too prefer impulse to lethargy in Bruckner though do try and hear the finale of the 4th from Munich. It is very striking, the coda especially. As to Celi (or ‘celli’) in general, I tend to blow hot and cold. The second half of Sibelius 5, the end especially, breathes a rarefied air that’s pretty unique. And yet there are other performances that while fitfully stimulating soon prove irksome. I like to have the cds around just to challenge my own convictions (always a favourite past time) though I have to admit that for most of the time they don’t. Thanks for writing, Rob.


  8. Eddie Simmons

    Rob – The concert when the Faure Requiem was played commenced with (almost unbelievably) The Sorcerer’s Apprentice!! As you know these short orchestral showstoppers were very rarely programmed by the big orchestras at the RFH. Michelangeli then made his funereal way to the piano for a terrific Ravel Piano Concerto performance.
    ABM was an odd fish but he did give me his autograph once outside the RFH stage door after a recital long ago which, knowing his reputation, absolutely staggered me as he actually seemed rather nice – if a bit “distant”!!


  9. Lovely memory Eddie. Would that RFH recital have been the March 1973 one at the RFH, which was stunning? Great to have his autograph – pleasantly surprised that he gave it given his somewhat austere reputation. Best. Rob.


  10. Franklin Cox

    Thank you for these comments and this discussion. I am a composer, theorist, and professional cellist who met a student of his when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University in the early 80s. The student was easily the best doctoral student-conductor, had each score memorized, had perfect technique, and so forth. He told me just a bit about Celibidache, whom he admired tremendously, but for decades I never got to hear more than the occasional postings of Celibidache’s work at one or two radio orchestras, until the family started putting out recordings of his live performances.

    I don’t like everything Celibidache did, but in many of his performances I discover something valuable that I don’t find in any other conductor’s work. For example, his recording of Bruckner’s third mass is too grey, with the text almost disappearing (I think his work with vocalists suffered from his obsession with blended colors–you can barely distinguish any words in the late recordings). But some passages–the one with the extended violin solo, for example–are so magnificent that I just wouldn’t want to be without them.

    One important thing I learned from listening to these performances is the degree to which most interpretations are driven by the beat. Recently a Facebook friendsdropped Celibidache’s performance of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra into a discussion, a piece I’m thoroughly tired of. But when I heard the opening of the last movement, I almost shouted in joy. I posted it, and that set off an extended discussion.

    Several doubters among my friends claimed that his performance had no meter, no energy, and so forth, but I thought it had qualities–a slightly swing in the fast iterations of the opening string passages, with a full swell for each crescendo, marvelous counter-rhythms in the other instruments, etc.–that I had never heard before. Some of this reminds me of the sway and character Bartok brought to every performance I’ve heard of his music–he’s clearly was not simply realizing the written rhythms on the page, but is rather interpreting them to reflect the folk music he is portraying. My friends’ favored performances of the Bartok–Dohnanyi, etc.–are to my mind realizations of what’s written on the page. They are exciting, but the energy clearly comes from the beat, the technical brilliance of the players, and the motoric iterations.

    Now I would never claim that what is exciting isn’t exciting. But one thing I appreciate very much about Celibidache is that his approach brought out other qualities. There are many types of excitement, of joy, of rhythmic energy; the mechanical buildup of energy that one finds everywhere–postminimalist music, video game music, performances of fast pieces by most pianists and conductors–is not the only value of music or art. For example the Celibidache performance of the Bartok gets tremendous poignance out of the close of the third movement, and he makes the fourth movement full of mystery and poetry. Now this performance takes a lot of time to get through, and the interpretation might not be convincing as a whole. But I’m still grateful for what I learned from listening to it. I think we need a greater variety of committed, intelligent interpretations.

    Whether or not I’m completely convinced by any given Celibidache performance, I usually learn something from each one. In fact, I’ve come to re-think my approach to tone production on the cello as a result of this stimulus, focusing much more on wealth of tone and tonal shaping than on volume and speed of iterations.

    It constantly astonishes me how both great and small the difference is between hearing a passage of music you know very well played yet again the same basic way, and hearing the passage presented in a way that estranges it, pushing you to understand it differently. The impact is great, but very often (this is clear when you hear Celibidache’s rehearsals; there’s one on youtube of the Bartok) the differences in performance are minute. But they matter. This attention to every detail, making the details speak within their context, which becomes vivid owing to their speaking instead of merely occurring, can make even passages you’ve heard hundreds of times live again, full of unpredictability.

    I apologize for the length of this posting!


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