Splendid Sibelius & Stravinsky from Celi/Munich

Sibelius: Symphony No. 5; Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite

  • Sergiu Celibidache (conductor); Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Recorded 1988 (Sibelius); 1982 (Stravinsky)
  • MPHIL MPHIL0025 (1CD)

Readers who are acquainted with me personally know that I am a devout admirer of Sergiu Celibidache, a conductor who made a great impression on me in my formative years and who has shaped the way I thought about music ever since. Even putting aside his philosophical predilections (and assuming that his music-making can be divorced from his musical vision at all, but that’s a topic for another day), his measured tempi and unorthodox sonority has been the source of much controversy, but even his most vehement detractors will acknowledge that his best performances could communicate so much tension and conviction that they would compel one to evaluate not only the music at hand, but one’s whole idea of what music is, afresh.

Well, if you bought this album expecting life-changing, epiphany-inducing, paradigm-shifting performances of these two works, you will be disappointed, because they are neither. As Celibidache interpretations (the man would have hated the word) go, they’re quite conventional, never once causing one to raise an eyebrow. They aren’t even particularly slow, and in fact the middle movement of the Sibelius and the Infernal Dance of the Stravinsky are quite sprightly.

Still, it’s one hell of a pair of great performances. Celi’s gift that I cherish above all else – his ability to conjure up a massive, opulent orchestral sonority while simultaneously keeping the textures remarkably transparent and unforced – is amply manifested here. Thus the epic perorations in the outer movements of the Sibelius (tracks 1 & 3) are sumptuous without being congested; the Firebird’s Infernal Dance (track 6), in probably its most vivid performance to date, allows you to hear every single fleck of instrumental color. Celi’s fastidious attention to detail particularly shows in the music’s quieter moments, where he uncovers and inflects minute details like in the long stretches of string tremolo that litter the Sibelius; likewise in the discreet glissandi in the basses of the Firebird’s Introduction (track 4) – minor felicities they may be, but felicities they still are. But as with most Celi performances, while the amount of detail is astonishing, they never once grab you by the throat. It’s not so much Celi revealing the detail as the detail revealing itself; it stands out while paradoxically also seamlessly integrated into the whole. Compared to the fussy point-making of so many younger conductors, Celi’s unaffected yet meticulous approach to detail is a blast of fresh air.

But do not for one moment think that Celi misses the forest for the trees. Sibelius’ Fifth presents unique problems in terms of pacing and structural planning for the conductor, due to its unique tripartite structure where the outer movements, both formidable treatises in acceleration and deceleration respectively, flank a delightful, intermezzo-like middle movement. The problems I’m thinking about in particular pertain to cranking up the pace imperceptibly across a gargantuan span of five minutes in the first movement (from 10 minutes into track 1; possibly the longest accelerando ever written?) and pacing the middle movement — enigmatically marked andante mosso, quasi allegretto — so that it attains maximal expressive contrast along the epic scale of the outer sections.

Celi’s masterful structural grasp makes light of these interpretative challenges. Few other performances judge the accelerando after the first movement climax so perfectly; whereas most conductors reach top speed at the 3/4 allegro moderato, Celi keeps proceedings relatively steady, stepping on the accelerator ever so slightly from roughly letter J onwards, and only really flooring it at letter O so that when the final Presto hits, the orchestra — pealing trumpets and thundering timpani and all — sound as if ablaze. Such a description might sound artificial and calculated, but it’s precisely this sort of carefully considered long-term architectural planning that makes the music sound as if propelled by a force of nature, rather than by any human intervention. And then there’s the second movement (track 2), taken at a wonderfully flowing tempo and featuring delightfully grazioso woodwind playing; the perfect respite in the eye of an epic storm. The suspiration led by the strings at 3 minutes in is to die for.

The Munich players, having been trained to a fare-thee-well, oblige Celi’s vision with the utmost polish, dedication and virtuosity; certainly they eclipse their Stuttgart Radio peers with whom Celi has previously performed these works (on DG). The remastered radio recording is clear and unvarnished, as per Bavarian Radio’s usual standard, but also a bit paler and less richly saturated than what we get in the EMI Celi recordings. Probably this contributed to my impression that the apotheotic climaxes at the very end of both works don’t quite achieve that titanic impact one would expect; this is my only reservation with this disc. And with respect to the Sibelius, a pirate recording from 1992 shows Celi in even more “Celibidachean” form, that is to say even slower, even grander, and even more intense than what we have here (though not as perfectly executed).

But these are minor quibbles that do not diminish the considerable value of the album at hand. To devotees of the conductor, this album is self-recommending, but even casual listeners seeking for great Sibelius and Stravinsky will find tremendous fulfilment here.


Great Sibelius and Stravinsky from a conducting legend. Celi’s masterful grasp of structure and tempo is amply evident in the Sibelius, and his emphasis on transparency and attention to detail pays great dividends in the riotously colorful Stravinsky.

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