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Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, August 2009

Conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912–1996) remains a cult figure and a figure of controversy almost 13 years after his death. Certainly there were those who looked upon him as a sort of Dalai Lama of conducting, just as there were others who thought he was woefully wrong-headed. His refusal to make commercial recordings prevented many of the curious (myself included) from obtaining a clear picture of his musicianship while he was alive. Since his death, however, there has been a flood of live recordings in editions sanctioned by his family, who preferred to retain at least some level of control over his legacy, knowing that sooner or later unauthorized releases would proliferate. There have been DVDs too—actual concerts, and documentaries such as the present one.

This film dates from 1991. It is not a biography as much as it is an opportunity to follow the conductor into rehearsals, teaching sessions, interviews, and unguarded moments from his daily life—for example, a visit to Israel where he meets several former orchestral musicians, and a return to his native Romania. Many of the rehearsal sessions are for Bruckner’s Mass in F Minor, material also covered in another Schmidt-Garre documentary released on Arthaus Musik. About his personal life we learn nothing at all, and perhaps that is as it should be.

Celibidache was not a conductor one could sum up in 100 words or less, nor was he someone who necessarily communicated in the most concrete terms. Hearing him speak to his orchestra or to students in various workshops, I often found myself asking, “What did he just say?” (One is not surprised to learn that, as a young man, he studied philosophy, and much later, Zen Buddhism.) I expect it took time for those around him to get onto his wavelength; obviously, that is not going to happen during the course of a 100-minute documentary. In teaching and rehearsals, he appears to have placed great importance on making musicians work out the solutions to musical problems, rather than telling them precisely what to do. Whoever watches this documentary in hopes of getting a conducting lesson, then, will be disappointed. I am not a conductor, but as I watched this documentary, I almost became discouraged by how little I know and how badly I listen. It was a humbling experience, but ultimately a healthy one.

One memorable sequence among many in this documentary comes as Celibidache is conducting a youth orchestra in a rehearsal of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. At one point he stops, is silent, and is clearly moved. (Later he admits that he actually was crying.) Then he praises them for having “fought hard,” adding, “There will be music after me.” (He also comments “Donnerwetter!” which the English subtitles infelicitously translate as “Man alive!” [“Amazing!” or “Astonishing!” might be better – Ed]) It’s a touching, very human moment.

Given the multiple sources, the quality of the sound and picture is variable, but is never less than acceptable. A full screen format has been used. This documentary is an always fascinating set of glimpses at a conductor whose like we shall never see again.

Gramophone, August 2009

CLASSIC ARCHIVE: Ferenc Fricsay (NTSC) 3078528

CELIBIDACHE, Sergiu: You Don’t Do Anything – You Let It Evolve (Film, 1992) (NTSC) 101365

TOSCANINI IN HIS OWN WORDS (Docufiction, 2008) (NTSC) 3077928

Profiles of three legendary conductors

All three of these biopics are recommendable as introductions to those who know little or nothing about their subjects. With that stricture in mind, Gramophone readers will likely be drawn first to a life-and-work portrait of Ferenc Fricsay with a chronological backbone taken from the autobiography that he recorded for DG in 1962, and which was reissued to conclude a carefully compiled Original Masters set (Al03). His own story is illustrated by stock footage of varying relevance, but the talking heads are renowned and thoughtful. Antonio Pappano emphasises the importance of private study, how Fricsay arrived at a rehearsal with all points fixed, how persuasive he was in music with a story, and how his stickless technique engenders the Fricsay sound—hair-trigger yet supremely well balanced. Rehearsal excerpts from Vltava and Háry János are garrulous and compelling but clearly staged.

Celibidache is much more comfortable with a camera pointed at him, and happily dispenses his familiar but unpredictable round of scornful put-downs, avuncular humour, offbeat aperçus and mystical pronouncements whether rehearsing his Munich Philharmonic, coaching young musicians or addressing no one in particular.

Christopher Fifield
MusicWeb International, May 2009

The Rumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912–1996) was a complex man, who studied mathematics and philosophy as well as music. With his craggy Geronimo features, his multilingual talents dominating this film, we are in the world of student adoration of a master who casts pearls before a varied bunch of budding conductors, bored-looking orchestral players and zombie-like choristers. Celibidache talks too much on the podium, and it must have been frustrating beyond belief to play for him in rehearsal unless you were willing to surrender your personality—as well as your musical identity—completely and utterly. Much of it seems pointless rambling, such as on the direction of the beat, why the 2nd goes across the body in 4, but out and away to the right in 3. ‘When do I know that a piece has come to its end? I know it when the end is in the beginning’. That seems wise enough, but on the other hand, when there are no more notes to play might be more to the point? A more profound if obvious description was ‘A rehearsal is the sum of countless “Noes” (Not so fast, not so loud, not so lifeless, not like that). How many “Noes” are there? Trillions. How many “Yeses”? Only one’. 
It’s the Celibidache show, for it all seems to be for the benefit of the camera. It probably always was. There’s a fascinating clip of him conducting most of Beethoven’s Egmont overture with the Berlin Philharmonic forty years earlier in 1950. He kept Furtwängler’s seat warm for him after the war until the older man was de-Nazified, then after his death Celibidache was passed over in favour of Karajan. Celibidache never conducted the BPO again. This particular clip is largely face-on of Celibidache conducting like the proverbial wild man of Borneo, hair awry, manic look, staring eyes, sweating brow, baton thrashing. The men of the BPO play well enough (fast and furious) but there seems little love lost between them. More human are the reminiscences of the orchestral players of the Israel Philharmonic, with whom he chats informally years later. There are some tactful comments to camera of how he had mellowed over the decades, but much can and should be read between the staves. It is ultimately the opinion of the orchestral player which counts when it comes to judging the quality of a conductor, rather than the audience member who only sees and hears the final product—but seeing often counts for more than hearing when it comes to podium prancers. There’s a talented—if terrified looking—student orchestra from an Academy in Schleswig Holstein playing under him, and of the students, a rather puffed up young Italian conductor who has the courage to stand up to the old man when explaining how he was conducting a Bach recitative accompagnato. He probably went far thereafter in his career. Other students scribble furiously. What on earth were they writing down of their guru’s largely incoherent ramblings in various languages? It must have made strange reading when revisiting those notes. There are no complete performances of anything in this hagiography. We dip into Bruckner (Mass in F minor and the fourth symphony), the overture to Verdi’s Forza del destino, the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth (not much playing allowed before he eulogises the Master), but there is also some fascinating coaching of a Brahms’ String Quartet.

It’s a reminder of the man who hated freezing any musical performance in time on the gramophone record, believing that spontaneity and transience were the name of the game. The best compliment he says he was ever paid was by a woman in an audience early in his career, who came to him and simply said ‘That’s it’. And that could have been the title of this film.

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