“The return of the prodigal father,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung headed its rave review of the concert that took place in the Schauspielhaus in Berlin on 31 March 1992, when Sergiu Celibidache returned after a thirty-eight-year absence to conduct Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker. The reviewer described the occasion as “one of the truly great moments in music”, a point confirmed not only by his many colleagues but also by the audience’s standing ovation.
In 1946, when there was a dearth of conductors in post-war Germany, Celibidache was appointed conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Although he was still a young music student at this time, his appointment proved to be a sensational stroke of good fortune. Conductor and orchestra worked together successfully for the next six years, but in 1954 they had a famous falling-out after the orchestra chose Karajan as Furtwängler’s successor following the latter’s death. Celibidache announced that he would never again conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker, and it required a personal invitation from Germany’s president at the time, Richard von Weizsäcker, to persuade him to change his mind and conduct two benefit concerts. Conductor and orchestra met again at their first rehearsal on the stage of the city’s Schauspielhaus. The atmosphere was electric, marked, as it was, by emotion and perhaps even remorse on the part of those musicians who had been members of the orchestra in 1954. Mixed with these feelings were expectant curiosity and even cautious scepticism on the part of players who were now performing for the very first time under Celibidache.
They spent more than thirty minutes working in detail on only the first few bars of the symphony, but by the end of that time it was already clear that Celibidache was one of the leading Brucknerians of all time. Working with other orchestras, notably the Munich Philharmonic with which he was closely associated for many years, he had evolved a contemplative style of music-making that shed light on every corner of the score, an approach that refused to admit of any compromise even with an exceptional orchestra like the Berliner Philharmoniker. They allowed their actions to be guided by the music, letting what Celibidache himself called “Bruckner’s long phrases play out to their spiritual conclusion so that the end is then the inevitable consequence of the combination of the symphonic conflict and its inherent antinomies”. Both historically and musically, the result was a unique event and one that truly deserved to be captured for posterity in both picture and sound.