02 July 2012

Titbits about Celibidache and his reunion with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1992

With the imminent release of the DVD and Blu-ray of the historic reunion of Celibidache and the Berlin Philharmoic Orchestra in 1992 on Euroarts, it is perhaps the right time to take a look at some titbits about this event which aroused much interest in the muscal world.

Celibidache's last concert with the Berlin Philharmonic before he left this orchestra was on 29 November 1954, in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. A few days before that, on 25 and 26 November, Celi had conducted Brahms' German Requiem to great acclaim from the public and critics alike. However, according to Klaus Lang, in The Karajan Dossier, "behind the scenes there were violent diasgreements between orchestra and conductor, as Celibidache -- the meticulousness of whose rehearsals bordered on the fanatical -- accused the players of incompetence and total lack of discipline". This would lay the foundation for Celi's inability to realise his dream of succeeding Furtwängler. Between the end of WWII and the death of Furtwängler on 30 November 1954, Celibidache gave at least 414 concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, compared to Furtwängler's 222 and Karajan's mere four. Those were difficult years in post-war Germany and Celibidache had managed to help the Berlin Philharmonic to restore its former high artistic standard. Thus, no one will find it hard to envisage that Celibidache was sorely disappointed when Karajan was appointed Furtwängler's successor. He left Berlin and its world famous orchestra.

Some would ask why Celi did not return to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In an interview with the veteran BPO intendant Wolfgang Stresemann in April 1978, Klaus Lang noted the following conversation, again in his book The Karajan Dossier. He asked Stresemann, "You continued to work with the Romanian maestro when you were intendant of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (*)...... Why is it that, ever since Celibidache and the Philharmonic parted company, he's avoided the orchestra?" (*from 1956-1959)

Stresemann's answer was like this:
"You know, I'm not familiar with the background of all this, since it wasn't until 1955 that I returned to Berlin. Immediately after the war Celibidache did a great deal for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but I've been told that he expected to be appointed Furtwängler's successor. He was no doubt very disappointed by Karajan's appointment and, although, I may be wrong, I think he now feels a kind of love-hate relationship towards the Philharmonic. He's often attacked the orchestra in public, which isn't exactly helpful and which is why I believe concerts with him would immediately be fraught with tension. I think it's much better if he comes to the Philharmonie with other orchestra -- as he now does on a regular basis. That he's an exceptional conductor has never been in any doubt." (pp. 132-133).

The ice was finally broken in 1990, thanks to the then German President Richard von Weizsäcker who wrote a letter on 9 November 1990 to Celi congratulating him on the success of his recent Japanese tour with the Munich Philharmonic, and sincerely asking him to consider a reunion with BPO. He added that, "It would be a real feast for me, for the Orchestra, for Berlin and the whole musical world". What a compliment!

Celi replied on 22 November 1990 and in the letter he wrote: "Thank you very much for the invitation to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic after a long time. It is my great honour to accept the invitation."

The time and venue were then fixed to be on 31 March and 1 April 1992 at the Grosser Konzertsaal, Schauspielhaus Berlin. As Philharmonie Berlin started its renovation in April 1992, the concerts could not be performed there. This would be a benefit concert for children in Romania. That time slot was originally allocated to a benefit concert by Leonard Bernstein, but as he died on 14 October 1990, the German President was quick in thinking of the perfect replacement.

Celi asked for 6 rehearsal sessions for the single work in these two concerts, Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. So much rehearsal time was unusual for a work the BPO was so familiar with, but they were ready to oblige him this time. In fact Barenboim had just recorded this symphony with the BPO in the preceding month. The result was fruitful to both however, with final mutual understanding evolving from the initial skeptical exchanges.

The rehearsal scene was depicted in some detail by Klaus Umbach in his book Celibidache -- der andere Maestro (pp. 83-86). During the first rehearsal on 27 March 1992, orchestral members described it as " a marathon". To get an idea of why they said so, Celi spent half an hour to rehearse the G#-G-F# tremolo of the first violins in the first 11 bars. He would not take any "Nebula" or wishy-washy tremolo, and he wanted very clear, very precise and very quiet ones. Umbach remarked that Celi rehearsed not only Bruckner, but also his infamous art of cold shower. One example was, on their first notes, Celibidache told the double basses they were like "a women's orchestra in Florida" and "Thin, so thin".

On the second day, he said, "You are wonderful, but not symphonic". Things became a little better in the third rehearsal when Celi said, "This time it is symphonic. But merely a false drama. Transparency is the ultimate aim. You should listen to each other." Then he wanted the Berliners to know what his Munich Philharmonic players' "deutsches Vibrato". 

On the fourth rehearsal day, there was "trust" and Celi would mutter "thank you". During the break, he said, "I'm very reassured that there is spontaneity. See how they react, a direct translation of what I tell them. Much is indeed unusual of them, but even if not everything works out, it will be a wonderful concert."

The concert did turn out very well. And the rest, as they say, is history.