This past summer saw the launch of MPHIL, the “house” label for the Munich Philharmonic, whose recordings are produced in conjunction with BR-KLASSIK, which is the related “house” label for Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting). The label debuted with two symphony recordings, Franz Schubert’s D. 759 (“Unfinished”) symphony in B minor and Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (“From the New World”) symphony in E minor, both conducted by Sergiu Celibidache, who served as Music Director of the ensemble between 1979 and his sudden death in 1966. These were taken from the Munich Philharmonic’s archive recordings of concert performances.
The second album on this label was released a little over a week ago. Once again the conductor is Celibidache, and the recordings themselves are taken from the concert archives. Again, the CD offers two selections, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children), settings of five of the 428 poems that Friedrich Rückert had collected under the same title, and Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Death and Transfiguration.” The earlier of the recordings is the Strauss, made on February 17, 1979. The Mahler recording was made on June 30, 1983 with mezzo Brigitte Fassbaender as soloist.
On the surface this seems like a rather maudlin offering. Nevertheless, there is a plainspokenness to Rückert’s language in these poems. While some have taken this to be artificial posing (even if Rückert himself never intended the poems for publication), Mahler felt that they captured a purity of innocence. What resulted was one of his quietest and most serene compositions, in which both the size of his instrumental resources and their respective dynamic levels are never allowed to erupt as they do so consistently in his symphonies. Celibidache does an excellent job in keeping those dynamics subdued in such a way that one would not suspect the score of harboring sinister undercurrents. For her part Fassbaender comes off as delivering the texts as if she were on the knife-edge of revealing grief. The result is that her talent for holding back her emotions comes across as more intense than the emotions themselves would have been.
(I usually refrain from comparing recordings, since such comparisons tend to be unfair to the “primary subject matter.” Nevertheless, I must confess that I first came to appreciate this technique of “getting more by doing less” from the EMI recording of Kindertotenlieder that contralto Kathleen Ferrier made in 1949 with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. As I have previously mentioned, both Mahler and Walter are numbered among those who conducted the Munich Philharmonic in the past.)
On the other hand “holding back” seldom shows up in Strauss’ playbook. Emotions run high in “Death and Transfiguration;” and the ensemble required is a large one. Ironically, Strauss holds back only in the percussion section, requiring only a tam-tam gong to join the timpani. The rich brass section, on the other hand, makes it clear that the dynamic range is going to be a vast one. Nevertheless, Celibidache approaches the score with his usual meticulous level of control, appreciating that there can be only one “primary” climax, that rises above the raging of all of its contenders.
I am currently working my way through Charles Barber’s Corresponding with Carlos, a biographical treatment of Carlos Kleiber, based heavily on the author’s personal correspondence with the conductor during the final years of that conductor’s life. Reading the book reminded me of how often cults seem to form around particular performing musicians. (A non-statistical perspective suggests that most “cult objects” tend to be conductors, such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, or sopranos, such as Maria Callas!) Because Celibidache eschewed recording for so much of his life and because his interviews tended to be dismissive (to put it kindly) of so many of his contemporary conductors, it was inevitable that a cult would form around him. The release of recordings from the Munich archives provides an opportunity to appreciate Celibidache as a working musician, rather than a cult figure; and, as far as I am concerned, his qualities as such a working musician deserve to be remembered far more than his cult status!