Debussy: Nocturnes; Franck: Symphony in D minor. Münchner Philharmoniker / Sergiu Celibidache. © 2024 Münchner Philharmoniker


An Original Voice

GEOFF PEARCE listens to Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache conducting Franck and Debussy

'... something very special indeed.'


I eagerly awaited the arrival of the files of this disc to review as both works are favourites of mine since my youth, and Sergiu Celibidache has been a conductor who has always intrigued me as he was a conductor who always struck as an original voice amongst conductors. As he aged, he was often criticised for his excessively slow tempi and his recordings have always been controversial, especially his ones in later years.

The César Franck symphony is a work that has had special significance to me, as it is the first major work I heard my recently deceased teacher, mentor and friend Ian K Harris (who died last week aged eighty-eight) feature in as he was cor anglais with NZBC Symphony more than fifty years ago, so I have since heard many different recordings of it. My favourite recording that I had for many years was the version with Stokowski and the Philadelphia that I had on 78s. This new release adds about seventeen minutes to the total duration of this work.

One thing I noticed immediately on hearing the first movement of this recording is how slow and weighty it was. This is not a conventional performance, but it does have its charms, especially in the contrast it provides between the two main sections of the work. Does it work? There are times that I would have liked a bit more pace, and the opening lento was more largo, but this has given the movement a bit more gravity than it often receives, and also allows the impact of the different tempo changes throughout its course, and one really does feel the accelerandos and rallentandos. This was recorded in 1991 and the sound quality on this remastered disc stands up very well. The orchestral solo work and contrast between the different sections of the orchestra were superb.

Listen — Franck: Lento - Allegro non troppo (Symphony in D minor)
(MPHIL0027 track 1, 6:43-7:41) ℗ 2024 Münchner Philharmoniker :

The second movement is again slower than usual and it is more of a slow andante, but this is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows again for subtle changes of speed, and allowing the main theme to breathe. The more often I hear this movement, the more I can appreciate what is achieved. The cor anglais solos are particularly beautifully performed. The different colours of the sections work deliciously, and there is a subtleness that is often lacking in many other recordings.

Listen — Franck: Allegretto (Symphony in D minor)
(MPHIL0027 track 2, 8:32-9:23) ℗ 2024 Münchner Philharmoniker :

The final movement is closer in speed to many of the other recordings, but Celibidache makes more of the contrasts in tempi when they occur. I find this is a thoughtful account. This piece was very popular with American orchestras and audiences when I was young, and sometimes the treatment of the last movement was almost jazzy. This recording is much more subtle but it does take a bit of getting used to. It is also, I believe a live recording and I find the quality quite remarkable.

Listen — Franck: Allegro non troppo (Symphony in D minor)
(MPHIL0027 track 3, 4:24-5:21) ℗ 2024 Münchner Philharmoniker :

The Debussy Nocturnes is again a piece that I have loved since a boy, and I did take part in a performance of the first two movements and have enjoyed listening to many performances and recordings over the years.

I have never heard a 'Nuages' taken as slowly as this 1983 recording. The clouds are almost static. However, as shocked as I was at the beginning of listening to this movement, I did warm to it as the movement progressed. The string divisions, the restraint of the cor anglais and the fantastic control of the French horns almost took my breath away, as did the gradual build up in the oboes. The breath control required to bring some of these passages at this speed is phenomenal. In truth, I would like a little more movement, probably because of the ways I have been used to hearing this movement, but truly, there are some stunningly beautiful moments here, and putting aside my aural memory for a bit, I have to say that this works.

Listen — Debussy: Nuages (Nocturnes)
(MPHIL0027 track 4, 5:16-6:15) ℗ 2024 Münchner Philharmoniker :

The second movement 'Fêtes' is taken at a speed that I like with plenty of contrast and a great sound quality. Some recordings of this movement, are, in my opinion taken far too quickly and the result is often frenetic rather than being joyous, and the section where there is a band that starts off in the distance, and gradually comes to where the listener is standing, before being swallowed by the melee of the crowd, is fantastic and I do not think I have heard better. This is a really fine account of this movement. The ending is a masterful example of orchestra control.

Listen — Debussy: Fêtes (Nocturnes)
(MPHIL0027 track 5, 3:21-4:21) ℗ 2024 Münchner Philharmoniker :

'Sirens', the final movement, has a lot more control over it than many recordings I have hear, but this one works well for me as one can really sense the songs of the sirens seductively luring unwary sailors to their doom, rather than just the swirling seas that one often hears. It is an incredibly hard movement to capture these two contrasting moods. There is something almost ethereal about this account, and one that I think works so well. This an absolutely stunning account, and again is the recording of a live performance.

Listen — Debussy: Sirènes (Nocturnes)
(MPHIL0027 track 6, 10:14-11:14) ℗ 2024 Münchner Philharmoniker :

I am very grateful that the Celibidache family allowed these recordings to be released on CD as otherwise I may not have got around to hearing this disc. The quality of sound, the orchestral playing and the contribution of the ladies of the Munich Philharmonic Choir, along with the insightful direction of their chief conductor of more than 2 decades make this release something very special indeed. It may polarise listeners, but I can promise you that you won’t go away unaffected.

Copyright © 10 April 2024 Geoff Pearce,
Sydney, Australia



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