Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Munich Philharmonic Launches its Own Recording Label

This year the Munich Philharmonic launched its own recording label, MPHIL, under a co-production arrangement with BR-KLASSIK, the “house label” for Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting). Since its founding in 1893, the ensemble has had a rich history of distinguished conductors, including Gustav Mahler, Mahler’s protégé Bruno Walter, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, who made his conducting debut on the group’s podium. However, due to its location, the orchestra was closely bound to the Nazi party, to the point at which all of its scores were stamped with swastikas.

Following the Second World War, it recovered impressively under conductors such as Hans Rosbaud and Rudolf Kempe; but the major historical event in the second half of the twentieth century took place in 1979, when Sergiu Celibidache took over as Music Director. He remained in that position until his sudden death in 1966. Those who know their conductors probably know a thing or two about Celibidache’s traits. He had a withering (to say the least) opinion of just about any of his contemporary conductors, particularly those who had gone to great lengths to further their reputations through recordings (not to name any names). (Some on the receiving end probably came to the conclusion that “idiot” was his favorite word.)

When Celibidache came to Munich, his opinion of recording technology was not much better than that of many of his conductor colleagues. It is unclear when the ensemble started to make archive recordings of his concert performances, but two of those recordings were just released on an MPHIL CD this past Friday. Sadly, the accompanying booklet says nothing about when this archival effort began, providing only the dates for the two selections on the album. Those compositions are Franz Schubert’s D. 759 (“Unfinished”) symphony in B minor, recorded on September 30, 1988 , and Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (“From the New World”) symphony in E minor, recorded on June 16, 1985 (which would have been after Celibidache had been “on the job” for about half a decade).

To be fair, however, that Dvořák recording is not the earliest in the archive. In 2011 EMI released 48 CDs of concert recordings of Celibidache with the Munich Philharmonic distributed over four box sets, The earliest recording in that collection was made on July 2, 1981, a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 45, which the composer called (in English translation) A German Requiem. All four of the boxes are now being distributed by Warner Classics; and this selection is in the fourth box, entitled Sacred Music & Opera.

To anticipate the next question to arise, neither of the performances on the new MPHIL release were included in the massive EMI collection. On the other hand, the MPHIL booklet seems to include what look like the essays from the program books provided for the two concerts at which the Schubert and the Dvořák symphonies were performed (both translated from the German by “texthouse,” which sounds like an Internet-based service). Those familiar with the EMI booklets may therefore be more sympathetic to some of Celibidache’s tempo selections than those encountering his work for the first time on this new release. Fortunately, some of these matters are discussed on the conductor’s Wikipedia page.

More problematic, however, may be the extensive breadth of dynamic range that Celibidache would bring to his performances. Both the Schubert and Dvořák selections have hushed openings. Having listened to Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic in concert (when they visited Singapore, of all places), I know from personal experience how he could evoke a pianissimo that would bring the listener to the edge of his/her seat. Sadly, recording technology is not up to achieving that sort of effect, not today and certainly not back in the Eighties. Thus, the listener is obliged to turn up the volume control to avoid inaudibility, after which (s)he will have to dial it back prior to the first major burst of fortissimo.

Many are likely to regard this state of affairs as an inconvenience. On the other hand, Celibidache felt as strongly about demanding the full attention of his listeners as he was about the attention of his players. To “fire up” one of these recordings on your favorite playback equipment and then stretch out on the couch would be to fly in the face of everything this conductor felt about the nature of listening. On the other hand, those willing to “play the game by Celibidache’s rules” are likely to find out (probably sooner rather than later) just why he was so dismissive of so many of his contemporaries. Once one has become hooked on this conductor’s personal aesthetic, it becomes very difficult to shake off his influence!

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