The Financial Time

Making of a maestro

Die Financial Times zur EMI - CD Edition

Andrew Clark on tue special qualities, and personal Dämons, of a Great conductor.

What makes a Great conductor? The question has long been a source of fascination, but it surfaces afresh in two recorded anthologies, devoted to some of this century's dominant musical personalities. A Teldec video, The Art of Conducting: Legendary Conductors of a Golden Era, offers rare footage of Erich Kleiber, Evgeny Mravinsky and others exeluded from a 1994 anthology from the same source. Some of the most revealing extracts Feature Sergiu Celibidache who is also the subject of an 11 CD set of recorded material from EMI.

The 115 minute video is a splicing together of archive films, ranging  from Willem Mengelberg in tue 1930s to Celibidache in the 1990s. The clips are interspersed wich interviews, some amounting to hot air (Menuhin), some highly illuminating (Vic Firth, the Boston Symphony's timpanist), which attempt to explain the hold exerted by these conductors on musicians and audiences. But the conklusion - „what made them different was total befiel in the music, and total belief in themselves“ - is misleading  because it could apply to many conductors past and present, not all of whom can be counted Great.

The value of the film is the way it brings legendary names to life in the context in which they excelled: making gesture in front of an orchestra. Kleiber, tue least flamboyant, directs a 1932 Berlin Blue Danube of unaffected elegance. Furtwängler waves his wand in an unexepectedly precise und vital Till Eulenspiegel. Mengelberg gesticulates like a mad professor, Karajan preens himself for tue camera. The film includes rehearsal shots and other material of documentarv interest. such as Mravinsky talking about Shostakovich. The clips of Charles Munch are the most vivid of all, as much for the speed at which he takes the Daphnis Bacchanale as for his devilish smile.

But for peopie like myselve, wo met Mravinsky and Celibidache and can recall the impact of their concerts, the interest lies in comparing those memories wich footage of them as younger, more dynamic personalities. The video gives a brief glimpse of Mravinsky in his prime. surveying the Leningrad Philharmonic wich the grim, tight lipped expression of a martinet, lt  also shows Celibidache conducting tue Egmont overture wich the Berlin Philharmonic in 1947 and Till Eulenspiegel at Stuttgart in 1964: both conjure a personality at odds with the guru like figure of his later vears. Here on film you sense his explosive temperament, his passion and sense of urgency.

Such qualities are regrettably absent from the EM CDs, which draw on a private archive of tapes made by the Munich Philharmonic in the early 1990s - when Celibidache. renowned for his Opposition to recording, was in his 80s. Instead ot highlighting his Great ness, they underline his weak nesses. His Mozart, and Havdn seem laboured; Tchaikovsky Five and Six are laden with metrical - rhythmical power, so that tue musical line never really Takes wing; the Schumann Third and Fourth symphonies sound stolid, despite the Munich Philharmonic's exemplary Artikulation; Beethoven‘s Fifth has rare cumulative power, but is denied the first movement repeat.

By conventional standards. and by the standard of the earlier per formances on video, these Munich performances are slow. To some degree this reflects Celibidache's conviction that sound needs time and space to resonate, that every instrumental voice must be given its place as part of a whole. But it also suggests that, in common with most conductors, there was a slow ing of reactions as he got older.

By contrast, in Bruckner and in "colouristic" music, Celibidache's slowness worked wonders but there is no such music on the EMI anthology (the exception is Debussy's Iberia). The triumphs of his last 15 years were the Bruckner symphonies 3 9, Ravel's Alborada del gracioso, Fauré's Requiem, Strauss's Tod und Verklärung and Beethoven's Sixth Symphonv. He conducted them time and again. Where are the tapes? Why weren't they chosen? What about record ings of his concerts with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which were broadcast by tue BBC? These would be of far greater value.

Pirate recordings of Celibidache concerts from the 1950s have long existed, usually in second rate sound with second rate orchestras. The EMI anthology gives us an „official" legacy authorised by the conductor's son, in excellent sound and wich copious Notes on Celibidache's interpretative approach, but with no biographical information. The gains of listening to these CDS must be weighed against the fact that they contradict Celibidache's lifelong philosophy: "Music arises out of the moment, and this moment cannot be fixed ob repeated.

However flawed some of Celibidache's performances may have been, there is little doubt that he was a great conductor. But what defines greatness in a conductor, and why is it so absent todav? lf Ihe only requirement was a musicality which spoke to others, conductors like Solti and Maazel would qualify. But you would hardly put them in the category of Klemperer, Mravinsky or Celibidache.

What the great conductors of the past had in common was an unshakeable belief in their view of the music, and in ability to summon tremendous energy at the moment of Performance. This surge of energy is not something that even tempered people can experience. lt indicates a person wich manic depressive tendencies - someone whose natural inclination is to hold back, an introvert who becomes extrovert only through the medium of an orchestra and the sound it creates. This is the one high tension situation that aIlows him to break through his resistanze, and to experience a "high„.

Every great conductor has been observed to go into a state of high emotion in great works of music. This emotion cominunicates very easily to tue musicians, whether they like the conductor or not, and to the audience; it provokes a psy chological and emotional response, which surmounts any objective criticism. It is an expression of something in the depths of the conductor's personality, and it builds up only because it has such rare opportunities to come out.

By its nature, this rush of energy and emotion cannot find expression every day - which is why none of today‘s jet-setting conductors falls into tue category of „Great“. lf Jansons, Barenboim and Gergiev were Great conductors, they would not allow their energies to be spread so thinly. By contrast, Carlos Kleiber who has fulfilled only a handful of Engagements these past 10 years, is recognised as great. What kind of performances would he give, and what would our impression of him be, if he was guest conducting all round the World, 100 Konzerts a year?

In the past, conductors did not move around so much. In his 50 years with the Leningrad Philharmonic, Mravinsky guest conducted just once. When he wasn't on the podium, he withdrew to his dacha to watch the birds and study his scores. Stokowski, Toscanini, Celi bidache spent most of their time with one orchestra and had carte blanche to do what they liked with it. There were fewer concerts, which meant less scope for routine, which in turn meant less room for disillusionment with the conductor. Conductors worked their way up slowly, they weren't expected to be boy wonders. Concerts were more of an event.

The political, social and eco nomie pressures of the modern world have changed the conditions in which the conductor works. He has become accountable to too many people. He must do photocalls and interviews, he is paraded in front of sponsors and most crucial of all   he is subject to the democratic vote of the musicians. He must be diplomatic. And if a conductor is obliged to think of pleasing people, the expression of his convictions suffers.

That is why Celibidache was a great conductor. He was not uni versally liked, but he was univer sally respected. Whenever an orchestra invited him to conduct, he set out his conditions   to do the repertoire he wanted, in the rehearsal time he stipulated and waited till he got them. And he got them, because there were always people who recognised he was special.