Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sergiu Celibidache Explains Bruckner

(The ailing Romanian Maestro Sergiu Celibidache explicates Bruckner in French and rehearses his ninth symphony in German with equally stunning eloquence. He was rumored to be fluent in fifteen languages.)

(...and this is what happens when I do score study with scotch)

When you're knee deep in a Brucknerian swamp while preparing for rehearsal (four motets this weekend), you turn to the experts to guide you. Celibidache was not made for Bruckner so much as Bruckner was made for Celibidache. Other conductors - Gunter Wand, Eugen Jochum and Karl Bohm in Celi's own day, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Barenboim and Franz Welser Most in ours - probably got much closer to Bruckner's intentions. Celi was, as ever, more interested in what he could do with the music than what he could do for it. But there was a special kinship he felt with Bruckner, as though he were engaging with the one composer whose ideas might match the loftiness of his own.

It's a given that the understanding of great conductors deepens with age. But Sergiu Celibidache didn't deepen so much as he plunged off a cliff into murky regions of (pseudo?) enlightenment unknown to any conductor before or since. Other great conductors often take slow tempi, but in Celibidache's performances the slowness of the tempos is the point of the performance. And most obviously, other conductors distrusted the recording process, but Celibidache was the only conductor of stature who refused to make a studio recording for his entire mature career.

It's almost too easy to dismiss Celibidache as a bullshit artist of the most steaming variety. So much of what he did seemed too eccentric to take seriously. Yet everything within his music-making made sense on its own distended terms. He was neither a Toscanini-type taskmaster who drove the music forward mercilessly in a quest for maximum excitement, nor a Mengelberg-type micro-manager who put his personal imprint on music's every note. As he often took great pains to admit, he was much closer to a Furtwangler (whose role as a mentor Celi would exaggerate to heighten his pedigree). Furtwangler was a kind of musical philosopher who viewed every performance as a speculation. To Furtwangler's thinking, every performance must viewed on its own terms and creates its own rules as it goes along. But Celibidache was far less impulsive in performance than Furtwangler ever was.

Celi was like a gardener, content to sit and wait for the most organic possible developments over periods of months, years and decades, toiling on the growth same piece over and over again. Celibidache's goal was for every detail of the music - melodic, harmonic, timbral, and rhythmic - to register in the most elemental way. It was not enough for him that the music absorb the listener, every element of the music had to be of a piece with itself.

(whatever else Celi was, he was a master)

This particular philosophy of music-making is not all that there is to making great Bruckner, but it is Bruckner's most essential element. Gunter Wand, the ultimate obsessive among Brucknerians, proved this by whittling down his repertoire until Bruckner comprised more than 50% of his performances. And yet his performances of individual symphonies would differ greatly from year to year as his relationship to Bruckner yielded ever deeper insight into Bruckner's music. The greatness of Bruckner's music is a kind of phased process that can only reveal itself in the work of a musician who carefully hones his craft over a lifetime.

Bruckner had the unfortunate fate of being an absolute musician in an era when listeners demanded that music demonstrate a completely subjective connection to the phenomenal world. There is no way to speak about meaning in Bruckner's music the way one can about Wagner. In this way (and perhaps only this way), Bruckner is much like his contemporary Brahms. But Brahms was the master of the microscopic. In every one of Brahms's pieces, like Mozart and Bach before him, tens of thousands of exquisite small details combine into forms that can overwhelm only after one hears the work in its totality.

But Bruckner was a master of making listeners aware of the totality from the moment his music begins. At every moment, the listener is almost physically aware of how every detail fits into the whole even before one hears the entire piece. Bruckner, like Handel and Beethoven before him, always tells directly rather than suggests. His music is like a rollercoaster ride in which the listener feels swept out of his body and then redeposited at the end with a feeling of having been through an experience too viscral to allow for much critical distance. Bruckner's symphonies seem to gain in power because Bruckner never seems to bother with something as mundane as fluent construction. Brahms writes like master scholar: the passion is always visible but kept at arms length. Brahms has an explosively emotional temperament, but never ceases to cast it in an iron-wrought critical distance - all the niceties of form observed and then some. Bruckner writes like an unflappable believer, the gigantic musical intellect that assembles his works always disguised behind the elemental power of what it creates. Brahms's education was negligable, yet no composer wrote music of greater technical erudition. Bruckner accumulated conservatory degrees until he was fifty, yet no great composer's writing seems so positively clumsy at first glance. Brahms often takes a few hundred bars to massage a transition between subjects as elegantly as possible. Bruckner simply stops his subject when he runs out of musical ideas and moves on to the next.

And yet that's only in the symphonies. There is no such clumsiness in the choral music. In the motets, it is as if the raw energy that only Bruckner could summon allies itself with a very Brahmsian elegance. In motet after motet, Palestrina counterpoint synthesizes perfectly with Schubertian melody. And with only enough Wagnerian grandiosity that the drama never wears thin. Bruckner's symphonies seem like superhuman creations, music written for God by a god. But the church music is almost unbearably human. Like Schubert lieder and Chopin piano miniatures, they contain a whole universe within a speck. And because of this, they are as much the backbone of nineteenth century choral repertoire as Schubert lieder are for singers and Chopin nocturnes are for pianists. However easy they may seem at first glance, there is an infinity of detail for performers to master, and it takes half a lifetime merely to notice them.


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