Schumann: Symphonies nos. 3 & 4. Sergiu Celibidache. Munich Philharmonic. 1 CD. EMI

5565252 EH

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Robert Schumann: Symphony no. 3 "The Rhenish" + Symphony no. 4. Munich Philharmonic is conducted by Sergiu Celibidache, in some live recordings from 1986 and 1988.

 1 CD. EMI Classics. 5565252

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Robert Schumann: Symphony no. 3 "The Rhenish" + Symphony no. 4. Munich Philharmonic is conducted by Sergiu Celibidache, in some live recordings from 1986 and 1988.

 1 CD. EMI Classics. 5565252


1.  Symphony no 3 in E flat major, Op. 97 "Rhenish" by Robert Schumann 
Conductor: Sergiu Celibidache
Orchestra/Ensemble: Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic
Written: 1850; Germany 
2.  Symphony no 4 in D minor, Op. 120 by Robert Schumann 
Conductor: Sergiu Celibidache
Orchestra/Ensemble: Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic
Written: 1851; Germany


Schumann’s "Rhenish" Symphony was one of my teenage infatuations. I was instantly bowled over by the soaring opening, majestic and at the same time ecstatic, with trumpets soon glinting through the texture like shafts of sunlight on the Rhine. I have never really fallen out of love with it, yet as time went on the conviction grew that no performance or recording recaptured for me the thrill of that first one, played by the "International Symphony Orchestra" under René Leibowitz and hidden away in a Reader’s Digest box of LPs in the my old school music room. Only quite recently did I find it can now be obtained from Chesky (CD 96) and the performance seemed to me as enthralling as ever: THE Schumann 3, just as Furtwängler is THE Schumann 4.
Late Celibidache is obviously a lot slower. His first movement is 10:49 compared with Leibowitz’s 09:11 and I must say the difference sounds greater still. The remarkable thing is that Celibidache, by conjuring up awesome yet golden and never clotted sonorities and maintaining the swing of the syncopated rhythms, achieves much more of the soaring, elated quality of the music than one would have supposed possible at a slower tempo. Could I, in time, come to find Celibidache so incident-packed that faster readings seem to skate over the surface? Maybe, though it hasn’t happened yet.

Celibidache’s Ländler second movement (Celibidache 07:18, Leibowitz 06:16) has an adorable, lazy lilt, and I must say the central section sounds so right at this tempo that it had me rethinking my reactions to the whole movement.

The third movement is simply marked "Nicht schnell" (not fast). Most conductors take the view that this implies it shouldn’t be slow either and treat it as a delicate intermezzo. André Cluytens (Milan, date unknown to me; he also set down a version with the BPO for EMI) offers a typical timing of 04:20. Leibowitz here goes against his general penchant for swift tempi and offers a romantic, songful 06:25 which has always seemed to me to get so much more out of the music. Celibidache goes even further in this direction, his 07:21 finding an intimate, almost religious depth of feeling. I didn’t find it hung fire.

Celibidache’s fourth movement is almost double the length of Leibowitz’s (08:08 against 04:43). He takes us into Parsifal territory. It’s an incredible piece of orchestral control. I’d hate to hear such a tempo done by a conductor unable to build it up but Celibidache has the tension rising inexorably right through.

The finale seems very slow at first, well-sprung though it is. It takes 06:26 compared with Leibowitz’s 05:08. Here too, though, it’s amazing how much exaltation the music retains. When the quotation from the fourth movement arrives towards the end, too, it emerges as majestic and triumphant while it often sounds hustled or else tempts vulgar souls – no names! – into a portentous ritardando. So at the end of the day you have to wonder if the tempo is not right after all.

I’m not yet ready to switch my allegiance from Leibowitz to Celibidache but I am glad to have a real alternative that I suspect will convince me more and more with time.

The Fourth Symphony is less controversial and perhaps less remarkable. The introduction is predictably grave, leading to a Lebhaft that is "on the slow side of normal" rather than "slower than normal". The phrasing cunningly retains a Mendelssohnian lightness while the climaxes blaze euphorically in spite of the slowish tempo. I miss the sense we get from Furtwängler that the music is being created – with all the lava-flow of a volcano – there on the spot before our ears. However, Furtwängler’s Schumann 4 (DG) is famously one of the greatest records ever made of anything and Celibidache holds up pretty well against it.

No quarrels with the expansive yet somehow not self-indulgent Romanze. It has great inner warmth. The Scherzo has a gutsy vigour at another "slow side of normal" tempo with a tenderly expressed trio. The proto-Wagnerian transition to the finale is terrific; not even Furtwängler surpassed this for tension-building. A yell from the rostrum only adds to the excitement. I was afraid Celibidache might spoil the effect by breaking into a too-slow finale but here again he’s just "on the slow side of normal" and drives the symphony home with plenty of fire and a terrific final prestissimo. I don’t find, though, that in this symphony he has so much to tell us that we didn’t already know from other fine performances, above all Furtwängler’s.

I have often complained about the Celibidache heirs’ decision to concentrate on his sonically easier late recordings rather than those of his Italian period (1950s and 1960s) when his fires were at their peak. Back in the days when copyright in Italy lasted only 20 years, Cetra had an LP set of the Schumann Symphonies, but I have never heard his Italian versions of the Third and Fourth. Since his First (Milan 1968) and Second (Rome, I don’t know the date) are fierily impressive, I hope we will one day have the opportunity to make a proper comparison. In the meantime, get this if you’ve already got the Leibowitz Third. You’ll find an unusual yet stimulating interpretation that might convince you more than you expect. Or, if the Celibidache phenomenon interests you, this disc should give you plenty to think about.

-- Christopher Howell, MusicWeb International

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