The Istituto Discographico Italiano (IDIS, the Italian discography institute) was founded in 1999 with the goal of retrieving recordings of significant performances in Italy and rereleasing them on their own IDIS label. Their latest issue, which came out about two and one-half weeks ago, is based on a recording made at the La Fenice (phoenix) opera house in Venice on October 31, 1965. It is a concert recording of Sergiu Celibidache conducting the orchestra of the resident opera company. The major work is Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. The program also included the D major symphony by Luigi Cherubini and “Intrada” by Sven-Erik Bäck.
Celibidache’s relationship with audio recording was a difficult one. This site has already discussed two substantial accounts of his early years as a conductor following the end of the Second World War, both released by audite. The first of these was a thirteen-CD collection of recordings made in Berlin between 1945 and 1957, whose release was followed shortly by a three-CD set based on tapes in the RIAS archive recorded in Berlin between 1948 and 1957. (For those who do not know the abbreviation, it stands for Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor, which translates as “broadcasting in the American Sector.” This was a radio facility created in 1946 by Americans in their portion of Berlin.) RIAS had a particular commitment to modernism, which Celibidache seems to have welcomed with great enthusiasm.
According to a New York Times article by James R. Oestreich published on March 15, 1998, Celibidache stopped making studio recordings in 1953 but continued to make concert recordings. Oestreich’s article also states, “A handful of tinny live recordings, mostly with Italian orchestras, have circulated for years without providing anything like a full or consistent picture of the maestro,” without committing to whether or not the concert recordings were made with Celibidache’s consent. Most likely they were made through an agreement that the performance space had with one of the national radio stations. Thanks to some skillful audio processing, not all of those recordings need be dismissed as “tinny.”
On the other hand it might be fair to say that the Italians were not as responsive to Celibidache’s demanding style and technique as the Germans were. Thus, on the positive side, the listener can appreciate Celibidache’s desire to bring out every nuance in Ravel’s orchestration technique; but, unfortunately, his enthusiasm is not shared by the ensemble. Indeed, the brass section sounds as if they really wanted to be playing the second act march in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida; and the result is not a particularly pleasant one.
Fortunately, the Cherubini performance fares much better. This involves a far more conventional relationship between strings and winds, which was clearly established firmly within the Venetian’s comfort zone. The result is a crisp account of a symphony that deserves more attention than it gets, reinforced with a solid commitment to intonation. The real surprise on the recording, however, is the Bäck contribution. On the surface this would appear to be even more demanding in matters of balance than Ravel’s orchestral writing; but, in this case, the Venetians seem not only committed to negotiating the thorny dissonances and convoluted melodic lines but also enthusiastic about the entire process.
Thus, the recording, taken as a whole, may actually be a case study in the problem of having too much to rehearse in too little time. Bäck clearly required considerable attention. The Cherubini symphony probably took care of itself with only a few efforts at fine-tuning. That left Ravel’s vision of Mussorgsky to soldier on with far less attention than it deserved. The realities of preparing a concert can often be very cruel.