Classical: Munich's mystic maestro

Two new CD box-sets celebrate the work of legendary Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache

SERGIU CELIBIDACHE, the Romanian-born conductor who died in 1996 at the age of 84 and who for most of his life refused to make records, is now the subject of two massive compact-disc retrospectives. And the paradoxes don't end there. Christian Gansch, the producer, is central to both projects - as mastermind of Deutsche Grammophon's 60-CD "Celibidache Edition", and as leader of the Munich Philharmonic's second violin section on a similar edition for EMI. Gansch, who has produced key DG recordings by pianist-conductor Mikhail Pletnev, conductor James Levine and many other celebrated musicians, played under "Celi" (as Celibidache was popularly known) in Munich from 1981 to 1990. By then, Munich's mystic maestro was slowing repertory masterworks into infinity, lengthening the playing time of a 60-minute symphony by an average 15 minutes or more.

Celi was always poised at the centre of controversy, adored by some, intensely disliked by others. He had been thrown into prominence in post- war Germany at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, pending the de-Nazification of Wilhelm Furtwangler. Thereafter, he held various positions, angered or inspired orchestras with his demands for extra rehearsal time and later vented his resentment at not being chosen to succeed Furtwangler in Berlin. His tenure as General Music Director at Munich lasted from 1979 until his death.

According to Gansch, he would regularly tell the "ladies and gentlemen of the Munich Philharmonic" that they were much better than their Berlin counterparts. Some critics will have agreed with him. EMI have chronicled Celi's remarkable Munich sojourn in three boxed sets, one of mixed repertory, another devoted to Celi's beloved Bruckner and a third (forthcoming) of Brahms and Beethoven.

Gansch prefers to focus on an earlier period in Celi's career. "The earlier performances have more energy and more rhythmic thrust," he said to me in Munich recently, "and I think that approach works better. Sometimes the slower speeds make concentrating more difficult, and then it is not always easy to enter Celi's unique sound-world."

Brahms's four symphonies are first on the agenda. The cycle was recorded with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra between 1974 and 1976, but discerning Celi-fanciers might prefer to wait until EMI launch their Munich alternatives (in a month or so), then weigh the relative virtues of both sets. On the evidence of Brahms's First Symphony, DG's Stuttgart Brahms cycle is a stunner.Another DG set - due for release in late spring/early summer - will include orchestral works by Richard Strauss, including Ein Heldenleben, or A Hero's Life. "Celi conducted Ein Heldenleben very often", Gansch recalled, " and it was always a huge, fantastic epic. When it was over, you felt as if you had journeyed through an entire cosmos full of characters and emotions."

Celi's only son Ioan is keen that DG and EMI offer definitive alternatives to the many poor-quality "pirate" CDs of his father's live performances. Although the mature Celibidache fought shy of recording (he had made a handful of records just after the war), he did agree to have his Munich performances released on video and laser-disc. Why? "He told me that it was because people who look at videos don't listen to the music. `So I don't care about the quality'," said Gansch.

His relationship with Celi started inauspiciously. On one occasion, during his "trial with the Munich Philharmonic, the keen young violinist was playing on tour in Napoli when Celi suddenly screamed his name. "`Gansch!' he roared, `don't play like that. I want less bow!' I was completely shocked, and so was the orchestra. During the interval, I went to the orchestral manager and said that as from that moment my position in the orchestra would be free. I would not agree to play under such circumstances, so I went home.

"Four weeks later, during a Munich rehearsal, Celi came up to me with tears in his eyes. He put his arms around me and asked me what had been going on. `You know Maestro,' I said, `if you behave like that during concerts, I cannot play.' He was obviously taken aback. `But I didn't mean it like that,' he said. And from then on, our relationship improved significantly."

Other Celibidachean foibles included a marked dislike for individualism within the orchestral community and an occasional tendency to "get personal". He also had great integrity and respected the views of those who disagreed with him, even if he reacted unfavourably at the time.

Celibidache inspired great loyalty. When Christian Gansch left the orchestra to work for Deutsche Grammophon, Celi was both angry and disappointed. A little later, when the newly installed record producer tried to coerce him into recording, he once again declined the offer.

"Now that he's dead," says Gansch wistfully, "I can imagine him sitting in Heaven and saying, `because you left me, as punishment you must sit down and listen to all the Celibidache tapes in the world!'" Profits for both the DG and EMI editions will be donated to educational and humanitarian causes.

Sergiu Celibidache's SWR Stuttgart Radio recordings of Brahms's four symphonies (including a rehearsal sequence of the Fourth) is on Deutsche Grammophon 459 635-2 (3 discs)

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