Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Brahms Symphony No.1 Celibidache

BRAHMS Symphony No. 1
Sergiu Celibidache, cond; Vienna SO

Like many other orchestras setting up their own record labels, the Vienna Symphony is keen to mix new and old. The label was launched with a Mahler One under their current Chefdirigent, Fabio Luisi, and for a follow up they have chosen a gem from the archives, a Brahms One with Sergiu Celibidache, dating from 1952. By this point, Celibidache was already principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and he only worked with the Vienna Symphony a few times, his first concert with them in 1949, his last in 1955.
Celibidache was 40 at the time of this recording, young for a conductor by the standards of the day, if not now. Listening to his reading, it is difficult to determine which has the upper hand: youthful energy or mature experience. Most of the tempos are slow, but that doesn’t prevent Celibidache from generating excitement, energy, and drive, especially in the first movement. On the rare occasions that he does pick up the tempo, the faster speeds are all the more effective for their rarity. The reading is highly structured, especially the finale, which Celibidache is able to present as a coherent whole, the progression through its diverse episodes seeming all the more logical for the carefully related tempos between them. The approach is almost Brucknerian, the orchestral textures expansive and luminous, the accents firm, and the progression through the work directed and focused. It’s an old-fashioned approach, or at least it seems so to my ears, and much of the music of the inner movements feels weighed down by the lack of lightness and grace that we’ve come to expect in more recent years. But it is certainly a worthy candidate for reissue; Celibidache’s mystique lives on, and on the basis of this recording it is easy to hear why. Also—and this is a crucial issue for an orchestra own label release—the band is on top form. The orchestra has a measure of the velvety Central European sound, although the tone is slightly brighter and cleaner than that of the Vienna Philharmonic, then or now. The performance sounds well-rehearsed, but still retains a vital spark of spontaneity. 
The audio standards are good, towards the top end of what we can expect of early 1950s mono. The booklet credits the remastering to “THS-Studio Holger Siedler.” He or they have managed to retain a sense of naturalness and warmth to the sound, and if noise has been removed from the upper range, plenty of the higher frequencies are still present. The packaging is elegant, with Celibidache himself dominating the visuals. The liner note discusses the performance as well as the work, something we sadly can’t take for granted with historical reissues, and all the recording and discographical information we could need is all clearly presented. Recommended, especially to Celibidache fans, and a promising second release from what looks set to become one of the more interesting orchestra-owned labels. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 36:5

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