Zen and the art of conducting

The Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who died two years ago, was a legend in his own time

The Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who died two years ago, was a legend in his own time. For most of his life he refused to set foot in a recording studio. "Listening to a recording is like sleeping with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot," he once quipped. He had a reputation for favouring slow tempos and demanding extra days of rehearsal. The better the orchestra, the more time he liked, on the basis that with a really good orchestra the possibilities are greater.

His demands in other areas were as high as his artistic standards. Munich's city fathers had to expand the Munich Philharmonic to 130 players and issue new pay contracts to lure him to the city as general music director in 1979. And although he resigned in 1985 in a public row with the authorities over his artistic independence (at a time when his annual remuneration of around £250,000 was already something of an embarrassment), he later received the ultimate reward of being conferred with honorary citizenship. Hardly surprising, as he transformed the orchestra into one of the finest in the world and swelled the number of season ticket holders to 14,000.

Celibidache was born in 1912 and spent his early life in Iasi, the capital of Moldavia. His studies included philosophy and mathematics - and when he moved to Berlin in 1936, he not only enrolled in the Hochschule fur Musik but also took courses in the psychology of music and philosophy at the Friedrich Wilhelm University. In Berlin he wrote a thesis on the Renaissance master, Josquin des Pres, and also met a Buddhist monk who was to become his spiritual guiding light. He made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1945 (he had won a Berlin Radio conducting competition) and, with Furtwangler out in the cold of the de-Nazification process, he became the orchestra's conductor for a number of years, going on tour to the US and sharing the honours with Furtwangler until 1952. From then on he worked mainly with radio orchestras, notably in Stuttgart and Stockholm, where the absence of raw commercial pressures perhaps allowed a more lenient attitude to his demands for rehearsal time. For a while in the late 1970s and early 1980s he gave concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra, but difficulties over rehearsals and the attitude to rehearsing brought the collaboration to an end. The unexpected and sometimes stormy love-affair with Munich proved a rich Indian summer to a career like no other in recent times, where reputation - the name Celibidache resonates with magical potency in the conversation of musicians - was driven less by a spread of prestigious guest conducting engagements or commercial recording success than by the very remarkable nature of his music-making itself.

Apart from the few forays into the recording studios in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Celibidache's art has been accessible only at his concerts, through radio broadcasts, and pirated discs of variable technical quality. The conductor steered clear of the commercial recording world in order to preserve the integrity of the original musical experience. A performance, he liked to insist, is made for the particular acoustic space where it takes place. Interfere with the acoustics of that space, he said, and you ruin the music. And, after all, is it not the very function of recordings to make possible the transfer of musical sounds from one category of musical space - recording studios and concert halls - to another - people's homes?


It would be interesting to know what Celibidache would have made of those recording philosophies which value the retention of acoustic integrity - Mercury's single microphone mono recordings of the 1950s, others using single stereo microphone set-ups, or binaural recordings, where two microphones with suitable pickup characteristics are placed on a dummy head, and which are intended for headphone listening. In this digital age it seems easy to forget - as Celibidache never did - that any recording, no matter how successful, can be viewed as an acoustic distortion of what it represents.

I don't know exactly when I first came across the name of Celibidache, but I seem to have become gradually aware not only of the name but also of the aura that surrounded the man. I ran across some of the early studio recordings and found the thoroughly worked-out individuality of their approach notable, but felt also an underlying heavy-handedness which limited their success.

Then BBC's Radio 3 broadcast some of the London concerts, as well as tapes from European sources. From these I began to fill out a fuller picture. Yes, the speeds were slow, but the detail was phenomenal. Sometimes the result could stray off the mark, sounding at once intriguing and absurd, as in the slow pacing of Sibelius's tone poem En Saga, where every single note of the strings' normally melted-together rocking patterns could be clearly heard. But the intention seemed idealistic rather than opportunistic. And the spaciousness of movement was obviously meant to allow time for musical events and relationships to register.

You could liken the effect to the difference between a hologram and a photograph. Celibidache manages to make manifest what other conductors only suggest. His ear is alert to every strand, and he wants each to be heard in a precise relation to the whole - what's above and below, what came before, what follows after. This, of course, is what conductors might be expected to do as a matter of course. But whatever the tempo, Celibidache always manages to give the impression of moving at a pace that is uncommonly rich in musical event. His unfretful art eschews angst in favour of ecstasy, a free-spirited celebration of the moment moulded by a visionary concept of the whole. His credo espoused "the experience of the end in the beginning", his definition of musicality was the ability to correlate, the capacity to recognise relationships. He pulls off that rare feat of marrying the freshness of improvisation with the certainty of clear architectural perspective.

In truth, it has been hard over the years to maintain a true perspective on Celibidache's work and achievements. The early years in Berlin are littered with staggering facts. He was still in his thirties when he took over that great orchestra. At that time he prepared concerts on schedule of 10 to 12 rehearsals. In his handful of years with them he introduced 120 non-German contemporary works that were new to the orchestra. Did he rehearse these, one wonders, as he did everything in later life, without a score? The pirated recordings which have gained widest currency feature his work with Italian radio orchestras, ensembles not of the highest discipline yet which often produce arresting results for him. From London I heard a Faure Requiem, at times unutterably slow but of the sublimest beauty. This was the subject of an insightful TV documentary which revealingly uncovered friction with impatient London players - and also a transformational encounter with the choir which reminded one of tales of Furtwangler transforming another conductor's rehearsal by his presence at the back of the hall. There are individuals who bring music to others with their very presence.

The major difficulties of investigating Celibidache's art have, however, now been removed by EMI's issue of an "authorised" edition, 10 individual CDs from the concerts of the later Munich years, also available as a set with a bonus disc (not otherwise available) of Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra, preceded by 25 minutes of rehearsal sequences.

The authorisation for the issue comes from Celibidache's family. The performances, unlike so many other "live" recordings on major labels, are unedited - though, since the Munich PO typically gave each programme on four nights, some "performances" take movements from two dates, hardly a Celibidachian ideal. The style of music-making is not going to be to everyone's taste. Listeners who experience musical tension primarily in terms of forward-directed linear energy, will find Celibidache wanting. The approach is measured. After all, only three of the recordings here predate the conductor's 80th birthday. And the performances typically communicate with the transparency and conversational give-and-take of chamber music, expressed through the far richer palette of orchestral colour.

Haydn's Adagio introductions go slowly enough for every step to be relished as a musical event in itself. The first movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique takes a scarcely imaginable 25 minutes. Every detail (for which, in Celibidache's musical philosophy, read "relationship") is felt to be important, so that either-or choices in terms of balance are hardly ever entered into. Both, more, everything is the motto. No matter how complex the weave, the voices that make up the patterns are all clearly, separately traced.

I found myself succumbing to an ever-refreshed sense of wonder at the achievements of a man Daniel Barenboim dubbed "part scientist, part gipsy, and part philosopher, with the qualities and faults of them all".

The Spanish composer Garcia Abril's Celibidachiana, a celebration of the Romanian conductor, written in 1982, opens the NSO's programme under Pedro Ignacio Calderon at the NCH tonight. The authorised EMI recordings, in a 10 CD set, cover works by Haydn, Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Schumann, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Schubert and Bartok.