Classical: The Compact Collection

ROB COWAN ON THE WEEK'S CD RELEASES
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The Independent Culture
THEY SAID he'd be back, and they were right. The man who never made records in his lifetime, but since his death in 1996 has cropped up on more CDs than almost any other conductor, is again dominating the orchestral releases. Sergiu Celibidache's broadcast legacy has given birth to two top-selling editions, one (EMI) centring on the slow-motion re-enactments of his years with the Munich Philharmonic, the other (Deutsche Grammophon) chronicling his earlier - rather livelier - Stuttgart sojourn.

The latest 10-CD EMI set houses epic renditions of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann symphonies. Beethoven's "Eroica" is a detailed tour of vast proportions, with a "Funeral March" like smoothed granite and a monumental finale. There's a juggernaut Second where instrumental lines blend or converge with total clarity and a Fourth where the contrasts between darkness and light are lavishly underlined. The "Pastoral" is an ecstatic ramble, the Seventh more deliberated than danced, and the Eighth oafishly funny but never crude. Only the Ninth finds mannerism bordering on eccentricity, with a finale that doesn't quite add up.

Three of the four Brahms symphonies aren't quite as good as the Stuttgart versions I wrote about in these pages a couple of months ago, with the sole exception of the Third - which is better. "The composer forms his work out of the inspiration of genius and writes it down in symbols," writes Celibidache. "We, not being geniuses, must go in the opposite direction and study the symbols closely in an attempt to correlate the sounds and find the way back to his inspiration." Even I can spot a flaw in his argument: "find `the' way" should rightly read "find `a' way". Celibidache did it his way and his route makes fresh, if occasionally strange, sense of Schumann's Second Symphony, Brahms's Haydn Variations and much of A German Requiem. But beware those broad tempos.

Pan back 15 years or so to Celibidache's recordings with the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony and the sage becomes a sorcerer, the eagle-eyed philosopher a hot-blooded firebrand. DG's latest collection (the second of four scheduled for release this year) is devoted to Russian repertory, with charismatic readings of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite and Romeo & Juliet excerpts as its strongest attractions. When Romeo sobs at Juliet's tomb his anguish is almost unbearable, and the Scythian Suite's "Procession of the Sun" has an orgiastic splendour that out-climaxes even Scriabin. Rimsky's Scheherazade is both formidably precise and texturally rich and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition parades a stylishly dressed gnome, a sensual "Samuel Goldenberg" and a majestic "Great Gate at Kiev". Celi's Stravinsky is full of telling incident, from the eerie happenings in The Firebird Suite's "Introduction" to the elegant musical tailoring of The Fairy's Kiss "Divertimento".

Anyone setting off on the Celibidache trail for the first time is in for a treat, but there are important statements on EMI, too. Both sets are well-recorded and include the odd executive imprecision. There is more extraneous noise on DG, but at least there's no applause. EMI includes applause both before and after most pieces, but it's separately tracked, so you can program it out.

Celibidache, Munich PO/ Beethoven, Brahms & Schumann

EMI 7243 5 56837 2 4 (10 discs)

Celibidache, SWR Stuttgart RSO/ Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov,

Deutsche Grammophon 445 139-2 (three discs, plus bonus)

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