Watch: When Celibidache returned to Berlin

Watch: When Celibidache returned to Berlin


norman lebrecht

October 24, 2015

The Philharmonic has posted rehearsal video of the interim conductor they kicked out in 1952 and welcomed back 40 years later. Celi lets the violins have it full volume…..



  • Dirk Herman says:

    May 17th 1994,Celibidache is conducting Bruckners 4th symphony in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam,more than 20 years ago,I remember this concert if it was yesterday.


      No he isn’t conducting Bruckner’s 4th on May 17th 1994 in the Concertgebouw.

      This is a rehearsal for Bruckner’s 7th which was chosen for his return to the Berlin Philharmonic after 38 years. The symphony was then recorded live on CD and video by Sony Classical at the Schauspielhaus, Berlin, on 31 March and 1 April 1992. I was the video director. Nearly all the video was taken from the first concert, with a few segments from the second.

      The complete concert is here:

      Details are on the end credits at 1.33.20.

      • Dirk Herman says:

        I refer to a concert at this date in Amsterdam,with the Munich Philharmonic.

        • RODNEY GREENBERG says:

          I’m afraid this is not clear from your words. To post “Celibidache is conducting Bruckner’s 4th …” etc. under a rehearsal clip of him seemed to indicate this what you thought it showed. I couldn’t know the clip was triggering your memories of a different symphony in a different hall at a different time.

          Readers may want to dip into another video I directed for Sony – Celibidache conducting his own Munich orchestra at the Gasteig hall in Bruckner’s 6th in 1991:

          The comments on this thread about his rehearsal process bring back memories of his scrupulous preparation for this performance. Students and music-lovers who were allowed to sit in brought notebooks and pencils. They strained their ears to note down his remarks to the players, who sat attentively and in some awe for however long it took. I didn’t see any “chewing gum, rolling her eyes, looking bored” but of course this was his own hand-picked orchestra. The Gasteig took on the aura of a temple. No conductor today would be allowed so much time for one symphony.

          Is it true that he once demanded 17 rehearsals to conduct a London orchestra in a concert that included “Scheherazade”? This EMI CD has the comment underneath: “A seductive and sensuous 54-minute long magic carpet ride through the Arabian Nights”:

          54 minutes presumably breaks all records. I can see why Ganymede says Celi’s rehearsals “taught me more about music than anything else” but also why William Osborne thinks “the results could be striking but represent a bygone age.”

          Macrov: as far as I remember the two Bruckner 7th concerts were in the Schauspielhaus because this historic Berlin re-union was set up in some haste and the Philharmonie was not available. If it had anything to do with the ghost of Celi’s hated Karajan still stalking the Philharmonie, nobody came out with it.

          • Holger H. says:

            Thank you for the link to the concert video.
            It is a study in musician psychology, and human pride, how first Celi in the rehearsal can not control his narcissistic wound from 38 years before, when the orchestra elected Karajan and not him as their chief conductor, and is very insulting and rude.

            And second, watch the solo cellist Ottomar Borwitzky in the concert. His body movements of “leading the group” are so extremely exaggerated, to the level of grotesque, apparently he wanted to make a public statement, that he would not accept his group being conducted by that man on the podium, but only by himself. An expression of utter contempt for Celi but dutiful and only a hair short of walking out on the whole drama.

      • MacroV says:

        Both the documentary and the concert are terrific. I know Celibidache was known for his slow tempos, but I don’t find the Bruckner 7 moving that slowly.

        Any idea why this concert was done in the Schauspielhaus rather than the Philharmonie? IIRC they did a New Years Eve concert the year before or after, too.

        • Holger H. says:

          IIRC at that time the Philharmonie was closed for about a season due to a complete renovation and asbestos removal.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    It is a rarely acknowledged fact that you do not get great musical results if the latest Prince Charming with top-notch marketing jets in, does a quick rehearsal and a concert or two and then flies off to his next gig. Anyone who has been attending the current Barbican residency of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig will have been able to witness how the highest standards can be attained. No big secret: constant rehearsal, assiduous attention to the smallest details and the regular presence of the principal conductor. Szell did it in Cleveland and Ormandy before him in Philadelphia, Rattle managed much the same in his CBSO days, and Celi certainly did so with whichever orchestra he worked with. But unfortunately this all demands far too much hard work and less of an eye on one’s international profile and the prospect of rapid megabucks. There are very few conductors today who are prepared to heed those examples from the past.

    • Talking the talk says:

      More accurately, it is a rarely acknowledged fact that even if a conductor aspired to work the way you describe- and I agree this is a way to get great musical results- the profession to a very large extent no longer supports this. Agents and managers don’t want it for obvious reasons and it appears orchestra’s also are attached to other priorities. So in many ways, orchestras only have themselves to blame for the overwhelmingly arid state the music business finds itself in- and with rare exception, it is exactly that and very little more – a business.

  • Milka says:

    There are conductors galore, then there was the great Celibidache. Whether you
    agreed with his interpretations or not you always knew you were in the presence of a
    great artist and you gave him your time because of that great artistry .

    One would be hard pressed to call present time keepers great artists.

    • Neven P. says:

      Had to read this twice to believe. The first good comment Milka had about anybody in a long time. Was it the therapist or Masters & Johnsons volume? 🙂

      • Daniel F. says:

        That’s neither fair nor decent, sir. Milka’s standards are, perhaps, unrealistically high for the present age and often find her disparaging most everything that comes our way, but standards they are and I admire her for knowing and defending that which is great rather than just going along and accepting the good, the passable.

        • Neven P. says:

          No sense of humor, ha? And I think it’s a man, not a woman. The alias must have been inspired by my great compatriot Milka Trnina.

          • Daniel F. says:

            That’s sort of why I assumed Milka was a woman, sir, but it’s possible you’re right. Your “humor” escaped me. Perhaps it’s a “regional” difference!

          • Neven P. says:

            I believe a M&J volume would come in handy for quite a few around here, sir. Would certainly make us more appreciate of regional differences.

          • Pianofortissimo says:

            Really? I thought it was inspired by a German chocolate brand. Silly jokes apart, in most instances I appreciate Milka’s comments.

        • Neven P. says:

          And by the way, the therapist and M&J have been suggested by other commentators few days ago. My imagination is not that lush.

      • Milka says:

        The therapist is tone deaf -and Masters and Johnsons old hat -Milka travels
        miles to hear artists such as Piotr Anderszewski,Eva Podles and would also travel to hear
        Artiom Shishkov based upon his you tube (give his Mozart #5 a listen ) .It’s about making
        music to just playing it .

  • herrera says:

    Neat video. No conductor today would dare rehearse the Berlin, or any other major orchestra for that matter, this way anymore: part critique, part mockery, part musical analysis, part inspirational. And I love the second violinist’s reaction: chewing gum, rolling her eyes, looking bored. Today, the orchestra rules, the conductor is all “wunderbar, wunderbar, wunderbar, this orchestra is the greatest…” until the next orchestra.

    • Herasmus Bedragon says:

      Totally agree about the wunderbar to get invited back, or orchestra hopping! Unfortunately,Celi a bit patronizing to such excellent musicians as the BPO – he didn’t need to do it to achieve greatness in that concert.

      Those were not the musicians that didn’t vote for him back then!

    • Jevgeniy says:

      Yes! I’m taken with that 2nd violinist too, I see her not only chewing gum, but rather setting her jaw. Something about the process really irritates or even disgusts her. I think this is worth paying attention to.

  • ganymede says:

    I couldn’t agree more with all that has been said about thorough rehearsals. I always attended those of Celibidache in Munich in the 1980s-1990s – spectacular! Those taught me more about music than anything else before or since.

    It is sad how little his work is acknowledged nowadays by the media despite a rich abundance of outstanding recordings (never the same as the real thing but unsurpassed mostly by other recordings on the market).

  • Jack Burt says:

    Sorry, but I think that Cell was being unbearable here.

    The first words out of his mouth in the rehearsal video are basically, “You’ve been playing Bruckner wrong forever, I ‘m going to show you wow to play it right…” There are people in that group then who played have Bruckner under Furtwängler, Jochem, Karajan, Haitink, Wand, Barenboim, etc… and Celi’s going to show them the right way?

    Lecturing a great orchestra, one that was great before you ever stood in front of it and is still great, is pretentious egotism. If you want them to play it another way, fine, tell them. But to rehearse this way is, insulting, and worse, a waste of time – and the worst sin conductor can commit is not yelling, or correcting, it is time wasting….

    Maybe this is appropriate for an student orchestra, but not the BPO.

    I watched the concert video, too… as Abraham Lincoln said about General McClellan “he’s got the slows…”

    • Holger H. says:

      You need to know the complex psychological background of this event. Celi stood the first time after almost 40 years in front of “his” former orchestra.
      When Berlin Phil elected Karajan as their future leader and not him he was utterly broken and disappointed. That deep wound never healed, and if you mentioned the name Karajan in his presence his blood would boil.
      Unfortunately he was a great musician but not THAT great as a man and human, that he could show forgiveness.
      He was apparently so deeply hurt still, like an old elephant, that he had to be condescending, at the stylistic mannerisms Karajan established, “excessive” vibrato, “machine” tremolo etc.
      A moment of defeat of a great man, in the moment where greatness would have been achieved by forgiveness and love, if not love of humanity, then at least love of music.

      • william osborne says:

        Very interesting statement. Thanks.

      • sl says:

        Celi didn’t recognize ‘his’ former orchestra. After the concert he said something about that they were no longer able to produce the glorious sound he knew. Of course, the Karajan era stood between them. But this has something more to do with the end of the Karajan era. Between the years 1989 to 1993 at least 40 musicians retired and were replaced by young musicians. I think anyone listening to recordings from before 1989 and after will notice an important change, be it better or worse. Abbado certainly did struggle to maintain the quality but the sound definitely changed.

        • Holger H. says:

          Understand, but is it surprising and worth making condescending comment about by Celi, that after 40 years, and maybe accelerated over the very last years before this event in 1992, the soundscape has been changing rapidly?

          There were pockets of resistance, Vienna with their defined and strong tradition, East German and Czech (Russian too, but inconsistently) top orchestras, who lived in a kind of time capsule and preserved their beautiful sound that way (only to lose it now to the onslaught of the globalized/americanized non-aesthetics, replacing beautiful (appealing to the heart) with impressive (appealing to the wallet)).
          Berlin Phil is an orchestra that kept attracting the bed players from all over the world but lost its musical and sonic identity after Karajan’s death and is searching for it since.

          • sl says:

            I think Celi made this and similar comments because he compared this with what he tried to achive in Munich, where he did all what he could to ‘recreate’ a similar deep and rich sound – which he obviously took for granted for with the Berlin Philharmonic. I guess for 40 years he never listened to a live concert of the Berlin Phil, so that he had nothing than his memory to rely on of how that orchestra sounded in the Furtwängler era. In Abbados first years the trend was certainly for something different than the Furtwängler-Karajan sound, and Abbado did always have a very different ideal of orchestral sound. He conducted both Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics early enough. So its not surprising that the orchestra changed and that not many people complained about that then. I think Kleiber had similar difficulties to warm up with the Berlin Philharmonic, but maybe for entirely different reasons.
            In order to maintain or create the unique sound of an orchestra, it needs a powerful conductor who is not just an inspiring maestro but also a superb orchestral trainer. Celi certainly was. Regardless of whether he conducted the LSO or the Venezuela Symphony, the different Rai orchestras, Stuttgart, Berlin Staatskapelle or the orchestra of the Curtis institute – the results were always extraordinary, as many recordings testify.

          • milka says:

            Can this be the magic Holger sonic “moooh” from the heart the Berlin Phil is still searching for ?

        • milka says:

          It’s amusing to read the SL &Holger (26th) exchange .So not understanding what the art
          is about. The Holger comments to be kind, elicits a good laugh.SL struggling to”sound”
          reflective . One can hear the Holger conductor calling for “more wallet sound” from
          the violins and” americanized non aesthetic” sound from cellos. Can this really be
          the true audience at symphony concerts ?

  • william osborne says:

    To what extent should a conductor work with the unique identity of each orchestra he leads? Or should he (rarely she) completely erase the orchestra’s identity to impose his own upon it? Berlin has a special philosophy termed Begeisterungsfähigkeit, which roughly means the ability to be enthused and deeply engaged. During their trial year, the Begeisterungsfähigkeit of new members is strongly judged. This accounts for the intense engagement of the Berlin Phil’s musicians, the very active movement of the musicians’ bodies during performance, their full sound, aggressive rhythmic precision, flawless performance, and remarkably precise ensemble.

    We see in this clip one of the mannerisms for which Celi was known: dismantling the orchestra’s style to impose his vision, and his vision alone, upon the orchestra. One sees in the clip that he knows the style of the Berlin Phil, and even anticipates what they will do so that he can stop and change it, often with a tone of mockery. The results, which required extensive rehearsal time, could be striking, but it represents a bygone ethos. Orchestras will always be authoritarian, feudalistic, and hierarchical, but the standard today is mitigated with more democratic approaches. Has this resulted in a loss of orchestral quality, and in the depth of interpretation?

    This is also a much more difficult observation to understand if one is not closely familiar with Celi’s work. As Jack Burt above notes, Celi’s desire for dominance also included the composer. The composition itself had to submit to his complete domination, often by creating extremely slow tempos. Bruckner, Beethoven, Ravel… they must all submit to Celibidache. He also famously applied this desire for totalizing dominance to his students, which is perhaps why his 50 year teaching career produced such modest results. Anyway, it’s all to see in that 3 minute clip for those with the eyes to see it.

  • FreddyNYC says:

    Note the subtle bash at their former MD……

    • Max Grimm says:

      Note the not so subtle response to his (Celi’s) own handiwork at time-index 2:45 and onward. That violinist was the best part of that clip.

  • Milka says:

    Burt and Osborne have little understanding what the nature of the artist
    is all about . – the orchestra is but a machine- it is given” life” by a conductor
    and audience .It has no style except that which is given to it by a conductor.
    If it has a great artist leading, it sounds wonderful .

    • Daniel F. says:

      It’s not unfair to say that orchestras have developed performing “traditions” and characteristic “sounds”, imposed at least in part by the collection of conductors who have been in front of them the longest and, of course, these conductors’ tastes in hiring. Great conductors, like Klemperer when he guest-conducted the lush, romantically inclined Philadelphia Orchestra, are able to change the characteristic “sound” of an orchestra in a single rehearsal. OK made the Philadelphians sound, as it were, without their usual over-ripened flesh; they were reduced (or better enhanced) to healthy bone and marrow. Like Celibidache, Klemperer also had difficulties with the Berlin Philharmonic, reported (via Lotte Klemperer) in Vol II of Peter Heyworth’s biography.

    • William Safford says:

      One of my favorite orchestras is Orpheus….

    • Larry Wheeler says:

      Agree or disagree, Jack Burt and William Osborne make intelligent and cogent comments. All too often, those who cannot create a single beautiful musical note produce negative comments about musicians as compensation. This brings them no closer to being an artist or understanding the art, and only serves to make that end unattainable.

  • Pedro says:

    I have heard Celibidache live in Bruckner 3,4,7 and 8 (twice) and Karajan in 5,7 (twice including his final concert), 8 (three times) and 9 (twice) – and also the Te Deum. Both were splendid Bruckner conductors but the playing of the Berlin and Vienna orchestras was much better for Karajan than the Munich Phil for Celibidache.

  • ganymede says:

    The notion that Celibidache was some kind of dictator on the podium, as expressed by some above, is utterly wrong. He knew like no other how to produce a transparent orchestral sound where all voices came out – especially the middle ones – and pay as foundation of all that musical phrasing and material had to develop from what came before. If you play full heavy vibrato early on in Bruckner 7, this would not only be imposed from outside (as opposed to being a logical development) but also leave the orchestra nowhere to develop towards in a piece. He clearly says it in the clip – your sound is too rich for this place in the piece – later on in the movement the richer sound is entirely justified and also produced. So, the notion of developing symphonically the material is at the essence of his musical understanding. This is much closer to the musical material than what most people do.

    Sure, he tried to realise this musical concept, but what kind of conductor would he be if he didn’t! This doesn’t make him any kind of dictator on the podium. He was a thoroughly modest person, uncompromising only as far as music was concerned, not to boast himself but to produce the best possible musical result, and also to enable his orchestra to have the best possible working condition. He had a very close and personal relationship with his orchestra, I witnessed it in the endless rehearsals I was fortunate to attend.

    • william osborne says:

      Your observations are simply not true. My wife played in the Munich Phil during his tenure. It is a widely known fact that he was often abusive. One result is that he was driven away from many orchestras in many cities, including Bologna, London, Stockholm, and Stuttgart.

      It is difficult to formulate objective portrayals of Celi because of the many distorted views provided by the entourage of groupies he very consciously cultivated. He demanded total devotion from them. This storied cult became a phenomenon without comparison in the classical music world.

      • ganymede says:

        Well, let’s agree to disagree. He was certainly not abusive and he was certainly not driven away from those orchestras, that’s simply factually incorrect. You can talk to the majority of his players in Munich and get exactly the same view. Some players disagreed with him, that’s fine, and you find that with any conductor.

        • william osborne says:

          Celi’s endless conflicts with orchestras are well-known, as are the limitations this put on his career. Ganymede’s comments are a clear example of the distorted cult reality that surrounds Celi. Late in his life Celi finally found a home in Munich, something fraught with pointed ironies…

  • Milka says:

    Mr. Osborne has gone down this dreary road ad naseum .
    The orchestral hired help at the time were often treated dismissively in one way or another
    by many conductors –the sad stories one hears of the wicked Toscanini ,Stokowski.
    Szell,to Rodzinski who reportedly packed a gun to let the hired help know who’s boss –
    word was that once they saw the gun they played beautifully .All the above mentioned
    had groupies after a fashion nothing new here except how one wants to slant
    the observation to making a point .The proof of the pudding is always the concert,and not opinions colored or slanted by what Mrs. Osborne had to endure as hired help .

  • Paul says:

    Think of how many musicians learned of the existence of greater artistic possibilities and the practical methods for attaining them via Celibidache. That contribution often goes unnoticed and unmentioned because a conductor’s impact and legacy is measured in terms of recorded music. Celibidache had a far greater impact than most conductors more prolific than he in the recording-production business. Can one Karajan or Bernstein student come forth, articulate a method that actually was artistically sound (i.e., productive), that went beyond mere platitudes, or imitation of style or mannerism? Celibidache’s major and lasting contribution is not his recordings, but the fact that he did leave an intelligible, legacy of music-making based on his approach and that it was and is freely available to anyone in the world to understand, embrace, extend or reject. I am deeply grateful that he worked so hard to find a way to bequeath what he had learned in such compelling and approachable ways.

  • Markand Thakar says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Paul’s sentiments, having myself worked with Celibidache in Munich in the early 1980s and at the Curtis Institute in 1984….that is, I agree with all but the last sentence. I found his teaching particularly opaque – perhaps purposefully so – and perhaps unnecessarily so. In my view he was surely a flawed human being; thus also an imperfect albeit great teacher, and an imperfect albeit a historically great conductor, imperfect in this way: had he accepted people for where they were and attempted to bring them as far as possible I believe he ultimately would have had an even greater impact. Nonetheless, I have found his greatest contribution to be an understanding that the goal of music is to offer a transcendent experience through sound, along with an understanding of the necessary relationships of tones to lead to that experience…something for which I personally am profoundly grateful.

    • Daniel F. says:

      I enjoyed and respect your comment but would ask you: are there “perfect” teachers” or “perfect” conductors? I saw Celibidache conduct two concerts, one in Boston and one in Worcester, MA, and part of a rehearsal prior to the latter. I learned a great deal from everything I heard and saw, despite “disagreeing” with a great deal……just as continue to learn from a great artist like Andras Schiff, without always “agreeing” with his decisions. Great recreative artists think and perform on SO high a level that one’s agreement or disagreement becomes irrelevant.

  • urania says:

    I was in this concert in Berlin, not impressed, sorry!

  • Holger H. says:

    “the interim conductor they kicked out in 1952”

    For the sake of factual truth and journalistic integrity:
    He was not kicked out, they separated, mostly over Celi meeting resistance of the older players, many of whom Celi wanted to fire because he considered them “dead wood”.
    And the year was 1954, not 1952. In his last concert with Berlin Phil for 38 years until 1992, November 29th 1954, Celi conducted Brahms “Ein Deutsches Requiem”, it was one day before Furtwängler died.