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.