If music has a mystery man, it must be Sergiu Celibidache, the late Romanian conductor who refused to record, forsook celebrity, and held legions of admirers in his spell. He belongs with the first rank of conductors -- Wilhelm Furtwangler, John Barbirolli, George Szell -- yet he is relatively unknown, even to the music-appreciating public.
Scholars and musicians flocked to his (infrequent) concerts, hoping to learn the secrets of this strange visionary. One would hear tales of what "Celi" had done -- "Oh, you should have been there!" -- but, of course, one had no records. Or very few of them. Occasionally, a pirate recording became available, and it was treated as a forbidden text, marveled at and puzzled over.
Now, however, two years after the conductor's death at the age of eighty-four, a plethora of recordings has hit the market, giving Celibidache a wider audience than he ever allowed himself in a half-century as a major musical figure. And still, the man is a mystery -- a maddening, awe-inspiring eccentric.
Celibidache was born in 1912. After graduation from a Moldavian music academy, he went to Berlin to study mathematics and philosophy. But music had seized his brain. By 1945, he was conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, replacing Furtwangler, who was subject to denazification. He remained in that post until 1952, when Furtwangler was permitted to return.
Soon after, Celibidache journeyed to the Far East, where he became a devoted Buddhist ("I am a practical Zen man," he would later say). When he found his way back to Europe, he assumed a series of second-rate -- even third-rate -- positions, often with radio orchestras. And he decided that he would never again record.
"Music arises out of the moment," Celi liked to say, "and this moment cannot be fixed or repeated." Tempos, for example, were determined by the acoustics of a hall, for "time is space" -- a concept that no recording can honor. "The gramophone," he complained, "is a dead thing," and music, "like peas, should not be canned: It loses its flavor, its scent, its life." Celibidache wrote dense tracts on the unrecordable "epiphenomena" of music, but for the layman he kept it simple: Listening to a recording was like "going to bed with a picture of Brigitte Bardot."
Neither did Celi get around much. He was difficult to book as a guest conductor, demanding as he did at least six rehearsals (a tremendous strain on an orchestra's purse) and requiring all players to conform to his idea of truth, which he did not view as subjective. Some orchestras would hire him anyway, suffering the financial loss (despite increased ticket prices). Musicians -- exhausted but amazed -- would practice through their breaks.
Ultimately, Celibidache must answer to posterity, and he must do so in the traditional way -- through recordings, misleading as they can be. We now have twelve discs distributed by Fonit Cetra, an arm of Italian radio, and ten more printed by EMI, with the controversial blessing of the conductor's family. The first set (pirated from live broadcasts) offers a middle-aged Celibidache with shoddy provincial orchestras. The second set gives us Celi with his final orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, in concerts captured on archival tape. Thus is Celibidache forced from the realm of myth to be judged.
The Italian recordings reveal a deeply individualistic conductor, prone to jarring heresy but usually persuasive. The Mozart C-minor Mass is spiritually and intellectually superb. Strauss's Death and Transfiguration is a model of control -- one, long, inexorable arc. Even the Schubert B-minor Symphony, often a tired warhorse, is thrilling. The sound on these pirates is abysmal, but they are useful documents nonetheless -- canned peas that suffice in the absence of fresh ones.
In the Munich set, Celi is on a rarefied plane, flouting convention, obeying what he regards as the iron logic of the score on his stand. Every performance -- no matter of what: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Debussy -- is laden with gravity, a ceremony presided over by a high priest. But one man's "autumnal glow" is another man's ponderousness. Celi suffocates Beethoven's Fifth, for instance, rendering it too carefully, as though he has thought and rehearsed the piece to death. Never has the closing movement -- a C-major sunbath -- been so joyless. The Tchaikovsky Sixth, on the other hand, is magisterial.
Celibidache in old age was shockingly uneven: a self-indulgent kook on one night, a prophet the next. But always he was his own man, having something important -- even if it struck many as wrong -- to say.
Does one genuinely experience Celibidache in these recordings? Not as one did in the hall, where Celi was mesmeric, but recordings are adequate souvenirs -- far better than photos of sex kittens. The pianist Glenn Gould, Celibidache's fellow dissenter, withdrew entirely from concert life and confined himself to the recording studio. Celibidache did the opposite -- and neither man served the public especially well, each hunkered down in his particular absolutism.
If Celi worried that recordings would puncture his aura, he need not have: He remains inscrutable. But now the Zen master will cast his spells on disc, for an eternity that he both feared and abhorred.
Jay Nordlinger is associate editor and music critic of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.