Classical Review: Perhaps, like peas, his was an art that couldn't be canned

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Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic: the First Authorised Edition

Music by Bartok, Beethoven, Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Wagner

Recorded: 1986-1994

EMI 7243 5 56517 2 3 (11 CDs, including bonus disc)

The man who once compared listening to records with going to bed with a picture of Brigitte Bardot, who - for most of his life - refused to enter a recording studio, who has been pirated on CD and officially released on video, and who is still idolised by his followers (most of them German or Japanese), is the subject of this lavish 11-disc "first authorised edition" of live recordings, complete with rapt bouts of applause.

Romanian-born Sergiu Celibidache stepped in at the Berlin Philharmonic while Furtwangler was off-duty being de-Nazified, worked with select orchestras world-wide and ended his prestigious professional career by turning the Munich Philharmonic into a world-class ensemble. His performances were characterised by a trance-like control of musical line, a mastery of orchestral colour that few equalled and a decided fondness for slow speeds.

Each CD case carries the Chinese shou symbol for longevity, "chosen to symbolise Celibidache's on-going musical and spiritual legacy", we're told. The paradox there is that most of these performances are oddly resistant to repetition. Why? Probably because, once heard, Celibidache's interpretations are yours for life. He didn't even need musical repeats (none of these performances includes them): everything receives the same carefully rehearsed, painstakingly detailed, majestically distended treatment, whether the slow movement of a Classical symphony, the fluctuating currents of Debussy's La Mer, the emotional high points of mature Tchaikovsky or the rustic bustle of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. You can hear him rehearse, digress, admonish or reminisce (there's a "bonus" track of rehearsal sequences); you can home in on details of scoring that you never knew existed, while the ones that you do know somehow sound clearer, more pointed, more pronounced than before.

The trouble is that attending to the parts is quite different to surveying the whole, and time and again Celibidache side-steps the real drama - I mean the animation of a composer's musical arguments - for the sake of a slow-motion "experience" that is at once infatuating, exasperating and self-referential.

He broadens the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique to an agonising 25 minutes (that's five minutes slower than Furtwangler) and weaves Debussy's "Les Parfums de la nuit" into nocturnal infinity; he darkens Haydn, lightens Mozart, relaxes Wagner to the point of virtual inertia (you will search far and wide for a more dreary Meistersinger overture) and makes Schumann's Third and Fourth Symphonies into something resembling sublime chamber music.

And yet I cannot imagine any sensitive music-lover who wouldn't be delighted to receive this set as a Christmas present. There's so much to learn from it, so much to be nourished by - though, once played, I rather suspect that it will go on to become someone else's next Christmas present. But then perhaps the microphone-shy Maestro had a hidden agenda; perhaps he knew that it was his particular brand of musical magic - and not the music itself - which "like peas, couldn't be canned" (his own words) and that it was far safer for him to remain "fresh daily".

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