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June 28, 2012

Centennial of conductor Sergiu Celibidache a reminder of poetic license

OK, I know -- I pay way too much attention to anniversary dates. Which reminds me: Why aren't people in Baltimore doing more to acknowledge the150th anniversary of Debussy's birth?

But I digress. Today's indulgence in backward glances has to do with Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, born June 28, 1912 (he died Aug. 14, 1996). I think it's safe to say that the general classical music-loving public in this country does not know much about the man or his work. But he is well worth discovering.

Active mostly in Europe -- he led the Berlin Philharmonic after the war until Furtwangler's return and later held posts with orchestras in Stockholm, Munich and elsewhere -- Celibidache became something of a cult figure over time. This was due both to ...

his music-making, which, often at very unhurried tempos, could not have been more different than that of his contemporaries, and his almost mystical philosophizing about the art.

I think the first time I became aware of him was reading ecstatic newspaper accounts of his U.S. conducting debut, which didn't occur until 1984 -- leading a student orchestra, albeit the top-notch one from the Curtis Institute, at Carnegie Hall. You knew from reading about the event that this was no ordinary conductor.

I find much to savor in Celibidache's recordings, even when, on rare occasions, the pace is too slow for me (as you know, I usually can accept any extremes). What I admire is the integrity of the interpretations, the sense of deep connection to the tissue and sinew beneath a score.

This extraordinary conductor practices the musical equivalent of poetic license, an unbridled freedom of how to shape a phrase, to control a movement, all in an aim to make the music more vital and communicative -- to the players as much as listeners.

On the occasion of his centennial, here's a little sampling of Celibidache and his art: Rehearsal footage that has bad sound and visuals, but provides a glimpse into the man's personality (and how he could make a daringly slow tempo seem sensible in the scherzo from Beethoven's Ninth); and the final, uplifting measures of Bruckner's Eighth in a live performance:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:44 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes


Wonderful Tim. May I also strongly recommend YouTube video of Enescu 1st Rhapsody? Shows such wicked fun even in horrid sound and murky black and grey!

Thanks awfully. I will check it out pronto. TIM

The Curtis concert - or parts of it, at least - are in fact available on YouTube. Among the Curtis alumni who played in this concert are David McGill, pricipal bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony, and violinist Maria Bachmann.

The Enescu Rhapsody may be the Celibidache performance for those who do not like Celibidache.

One thing that needs to be pointed out is that, like Otto Klemperer, Celibidache was only slow in the last years of his career. For instance, his live performance of Beethoven's violin concerto with Wolfgang Schneiderhan is certainly one of the fastest from the pre-HIP era.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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