Obituary: Sergiu Celibidache

Thursday 15 August 1996 23:02

Among the most idiosyncratic of orchestral conductors, Sergiu Celibidache was a rare figure in Britain, where his visits in the past 40 years can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Always a perfectionist, he priced himself beyond most orchestral budgets by his demands for rehearsal time, requiring a minimum of five or six sessions for any programme, and for similar reasons he restricted his association with orchestras with whom he was not familiar.

Yet his meticulous preparation made possible a degree of instinctive insight when it came to performance that could achieve powerful conviction. Documentary evidence of this came recently to hand with an hour-long video, commercially issued in Britain in 1992, of which over half is devoted to the conductor's rehearsal session with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra for the performance of Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony that follows thereafter.

Working as usual without a score for music he already knew down to the smallest detail, and letting the orchestra leader give any necessary cues, he is seen to smile and joke with the players (in German, of course; English subtitles are added) to illuminate his batonless gestures. His ultra-sensitive ears fasten on the slightest deviation from his intentions, and he sings the phrase as he wanted it. Yet the performance which follows, so assiduously prepared, comes across with astonishing freshness and apparent spontaneity.

He once said that the quality of an orchestra governed the number of rehearsals he needed, and the better the orchestra the more he rehearsed it, because the possibilities were greater. "There is no miracle in music," he declared, "only work." On occasion he did go too far, once so exacerbating a Rome orchestra in a particularly trying session that the players threw their music at him, bringing an abrupt cancellation of the engagement and a permanent rift.

Celibidache was born at Iasi, capital of the Romanian province of Moldavia, where his father was a government administrator. He began musical education from the age of six, later taking up philosophy and higher mathematics. In 1936 he entered the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik while continuing studies in the psychology of music and in philosophy at Friedrich Wilhelm University. Also about this time he met a Buddhist monk who had a profound effect on his Orthodox faith and his spiritual outlook thereafter.

In a combination of circumstances, his career was launched virtually at the top. At the end of the Second World War in 1945 he won a Berlin Radio competition for the principal conductorship of the Radio Symphony Orchestra there, but when Leo Borchard, then conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, was shot after failing to stop his car when challenged by a US sentry, Celibidache was offered and accepted the more prestigious post.

He remained there until a rehabilitated Wilhelm Furtwangler returned in 1952, and is remembered for his hard work in rebuilding the Berlin Philharmonic in the aftermath of war. Part of his policy was to re-stock the orchestra's repertoire, including more than 120 non-German works, by Barber, Britten, Copland, Poulenc, Ravel, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and others, that the orchestra had never previously played, and regularly being given 10 or 12 rehearsals for a single programme.

During his Berlin period Celibidache began making gramophone records, mainly of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky and in advance of long-play or stereo sound, some of which reappeared on a CD a few years ago. When the use of magnetic tape for recording allowed for shorter "takes" and the substitution of one passage for another, he virtually turned his back on a medium that he accused of producing "complete travesties".

He believed that the technique of tape-editing meant "the end of the continuous and basic pulse necessary to bring the work to life in sound", and considered a recording only offered "an impression of what certain people thought and felt about the music at a certain time", making his views more explicit by reportedly describing a recorded performance as being "like a photograph of love-making".

From his Berlin base Celibidache began to travel more widely, making guest appearances elsewhere in Europe, in Israel and especially in South America. He made his US debut in 1948 on a tour with the Berlin Philharmonic shared with Furtwangler, and in the same year first came to Britain for concerts with the London Philharmonic. He later returned to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra and, although he appeared again since, my own last experience of his tall, lean-faced figure was at an LSO concert in 1962.

My review at the time observed that the flamboyance and eccentricity noted by colleagues 12 years previously had given way to more distinctive qualities of control and deliberation. He began the programme with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, played more as "pure" music than as scene-painting, with a gain in formal and textural beauty at the expense of some dramatic tension, and balanced that with Berlioz and a Carnaval Romain overture of unashamed virtuosity, extreme delicacy and subtlety in Ravel's Ma Mere l'Oye and rhythmic vitality in excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

Somebody once coined the term "Latin-Slavonic" to describe Celibidache's style, and it aptly applies to what I can recall of him and to the few records that exist. His choice of tempo could be unconventional, and dynamic changes were often steeply graded. At the same time he could obtain an extraordinary delicacy of pianissimo playing as well as a generous and well-balanced sonority, and enjoyed highlighting solo and sectional strands in the overall texture while keeping bass instruments playing extremely quietly.

According to him, a satisfactory performance could only be achieved by working over long periods with profound concentration, to ensure an overall grasp of character and content as well as finesse of detail. He had influential periods with the radio orchestras at Stuttgart from 1959 and Stockholm between 1962 and 1971 (radio orchestras, he found, were usually allowed more rehearsal time), and was a knight of the Swedish Order of Vasa. In 1979 he became music director of the Munich Philharmonic, and in 1985 he joined the faculty at the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia.

Celibidache composed works of his own, including a Requiem, four symphonies, a piano concerto and Der Taschengarten, an orchestral suite which he did record, with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, on behalf of Unicef, but little of his music has been heard. Away from the concert-hall he had an interest in sport, having been a keen footballer in his youth (his first engagement on coming to London was to attend an Arsenal match), but music enveloped his life more completely than most.

Noel Goodwin

Sergiu Celibidache, conductor: born Iasi, Romania 28 June 1912; Conductor and Artistic Director, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra 1946-51; Chief Conductor, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra 1979-96; married (one son); died Paris 14 August 1996.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in