Feature Review: 24th biennial George Enescu International Music Festival

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

This 24th Edition of the biennial Enescu Festival followed a not dissimilar trajectory to its predecessor. Hence most of the events once again took place at the adjacent venues of the Grand Palace Hall and Romanian Athenaeum, together with a variety of chamber recitals at the Auditorium Hall and concerts of predominantly twentieth century music at the Radio Hall. For this edition the daily programme sheets have been replaced by programme books that offer a measure of durability, though the newspapers featuring reviews and interviews previously appearing every two days seem to have been discontinued, which is a great pity (though surely something similar could still be maintained as an online resource?). A round-up of events attended over the week Monday 9th to Sunday 16th September follows below.

    Mid-morning concerts at the Auditorium Hall

Just this single mid-morning recital to consider on Sunday September 15th, when the violinist Dan Zhu was partnered by pianist Gerhard Oppitz in a finely judged programme that opened with the unbridled verve of Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata (1798), incisively rendered but without neglecting the artful poise of the ‘Tema con variazioni’ forming its central slow movement. Enescu’s Impressions d’Enfance (1940) was accorded an unusually tensile rendering which emphasized both its formal cohesion and its cumulative emotional charge; on occasion at the expense of those evocative qualities permeating this most intimate of its composer’s mature pieces, leaving no doubt as to that architectonic rigour making this a ‘Fourth Violin Sonata’ in all but name. Understandable it should have become one of Enescu’s most played works.

Prominent in Germany (not least for frequent collaboration with Sir Colin Davis), Oppitz has enjoyed only a limited profile in the UK, but listening to his fluid pianism in Szymanowski’s Mythes (1915) was to encounter pianism of a high order – whether in the rarefied strains of ‘La fontaine d’Arethuse’, ethereal elegance of ‘Narcisse’ or the playful guile of ‘Dryades et Pan’. Not that Zhu was lacking insight here or in Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata (1888), the last chamber work from its composer’s formative years and the only one to have entered the repertoire. In particular, the central Andante evinced a lightness of touch as accords well with its ‘Improvisation’ heading, while there was no lack of panache or impetus in either of those outer movements during which the mature composer comes bracingly and headily to the fore.

    Mid-afternoon concerts at the Athenaeum

No disrespect to cellist Alexander Kniazev or pianist Plamena Mangova to call their recital on Monday 9th an unexpected highlight. Not the least attraction was its unerring follow-through of programme – begun with the Élégie (1880) that typifies the wistful inwardness of Fauré’s later chamber music. Here it provided a telling foil for a rare revival of Enescu’s First Cello Sonata (1898) – most imposing of his teenage pieces with its reckless amalgam of elements derived from German and French sources. Ably negotiated its discursive initial movement, Kniazev brought not a little humour to a successor poised between scherzo and intermezzo, then rendered the slow movement with soulful warmth; in its turn ideally contrasted with the incisive final Presto. Enescu’s belated acknowledgement of its worth seemed fully justified.

The context from which this piece merged was rounded-out in the second half – not least by Brahms’s Second Cello Sonata (1886), itself the most symphonic of his duo works, in which Kniazev audibly relished the physicality of its opening Allegro then stealthy ambivalence of its Adagio. Mangova came to the fore with the dextrous pianism of its final two movements, while her more yielding side was no less evident in Franck’s Cello Sonata (1888) as arranged from the violin original by Jules Delsart. Undertaken with the composer’s blessing, this is as idiomatic as it is probing – Kniazev duly bringing out the thematic transformations that bind its four movements into an inevitable entity. Clearly a recital of such ambition, coherence and insight hardly warranted an encore, and these musicians rightly refrained from providing one.

Maxim Vengerov is nowadays as much a conductor as a violinist. His concert with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic on Wednesday 11th opened with a cameo in the latter capacity, rendering Enescu’s Ballade (1895) with suave eloquence. Gauthier Capuçon then assumed the solo spot for a reading of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme (1876) which aptly underlined its (never slavish) indebtedness to eighteenth-century classicism, not least for the way that the pertly characterized variations coalesce into a stealthily emerging unity. Vengerov proved an attentive accompanist both here and in Tchaikovsky’s own arrangement for cello and strings of the Andante cantabile from his First String Quartet (1871); music which evidently reduced the great Leo Tolstoy to tears and which is never less affecting when given with such pathos.
Tchaikovsky remained the order of the day after the interval, Vengerov presiding over an account of the Sixth Symphony (1893) that began rather impassively before hitting its stride in a notably vehement take on the first movement’s development then climaxing with a not unduly histrionic rendering of its ‘big tune’. The intermezzo was appealing without being coy, not least through Vengerov’s astute pointing up of its underlying 5/4 metre, while the scherzo began in a mood of tense expectancy then culminated in a march-past of explosive energy. Almost avoiding extraneous applause, the closing Adagio followed on apace – its careworn emotion yielding no hint of lachrymosity as it wended a fatalistic course. A well-conceived and persuasively realized interpretation, for which Vengerov can take due credit.

The Monte Carlo Philharmonic returned on Thursday 12th in what was a showcase for bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. His regular collaborator Gareth Jones was on hand to open proceedings with the Prelude to Act Three of Wagner’s Lohengrin, its rousing strains a telling foil to the wide-eyed rumination of ‘Was duftet doch der flieder’ from Act Two of Die Meistersinger. Music from Act Three of Die Walküre rounded out this first half – Jones presiding over a lively if anonymous reading of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, before Terfel returned for ‘Wotan’s Farewell’ and ‘Magic Fire Music’; a warhorse of the operatic repertoire to which, hardly for the first time, he summoned a burnished eloquence and finely gauged rhetoric such as held the capacity audience spellbound – not least for the innate humanity of Terfel’s assumption.

Lighter fare followed the interval, the suave Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin proceeding ‘Son lo spirit che nega’ from Act One of Boito’s Mefistofele as Terfel despatched with arrestingly camp humour. He found glinting irony in ‘Moritat von Macke Messer’ from Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper, then followed Jones’s breezy take on the Overture to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific with a winning rendition of its perennial highlight ‘Some enchanted evening’. The warm admonishment of ‘How to handle a woman’ from Loewe and Lerner’s Camelot segued into the effortless charisma of ‘If I were a rich man’ from Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof – Terfel acknowledging the applause with several encores as ended with the Welsh traditional lullaby Suo Gân, made more affecting when shorn of undue sentiment.

The first of two concerts by Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège on Saturday 14th was a tale of two soloists. Denis Kozhukhin took centre-stage in the first half for an increasingly popular coupling of concertante pieces inspired by a certain 24th Caprice. It may be modest in scope, but Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini (orchestrated in 1978 from a two-piano original of 1941) teases out its fair share of subtlety in a tour de force of effervescent pianism. Kozhukhin played it with relish and was hardly less attuned to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934). The first half was judiciously characterized in its stark emotional contrasts, and if the ‘slow movement’ of Variations 16-18 was a little lacklustre, the closing sequence had a propulsive energy through to the dazzling culmination then deadpan payoff.

In both works, the Liège musicians evinced no mean rapport with their conductor, the well regarded Tiberiu Soare. He proved no less attentive in the second half, mezzo Anna Caterina Antonacci taking the stage for La voix humaine (1958) – Poulenc’s ‘lyrical monodrama’ in which the protagonist’s disillusionment then breakdown in the face of a doomed relationship is graphically depicted in musical and dramatic terms. Antonacci summoned all the requisite anguish and desperation, vividly projecting the gamut of emotions without risk of theatrical overkill, while Soare secured a comparable orchestral response for what is Poulenc’s most radical and ambivalent score. Thankfully there was no simulated strangulation by telephone cord at the close; rather Antonacci faded from view as the music itself stuttered into silence.

The Liège Philharmonic returned on Sunday 15th for an ambitious programme under Gergely Madaras. Soon to become this orchestra’s principal conductor, he charted a brisk while never inflexible course across Enescu’s Second Orchestral Suite (1915) – its neo-classical and even neo-baroque traits subsumed into an affectionate take on dance-measures from those eras and climaxing in the polyphonic energy of a ‘Bourrée’ as brings the work thematically full circle. An impressive performance, as was that of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto (1938) – where any thought Renaud Capuçon, most fastidious of soloists, might lack the necessary dynamism was banished in the face of playing that aroused and entranced by turns. Rarely can the finale have sounded less than a re-run of the first movement, such was Capuçon’s verve and insight.

Not a little of the impact of this performance was owing to Madaras’s skilful accompanying. He duly came into his own with a second half reading of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony (1944) such as offered a fresh perspective on this long familiar score. Not its least point of interest was an opening Andante that stressed the music’s lyrical and inward qualities rather than its monumentality, with even the seismic coda yielding more than a touch of rumination. Not that this for lacked impact any more than the scherzo lacked for tensile wit or, in its trio, insouciance; the Adagio emerging gradually yet never sluggishly from balletic eloquence to ominous dread before regaining its earlier poise. The finale was soundly rendered, its coda jaunty rather than anarchic but affording decisive closure to the work as to this performance.

    Evening concerts at the Grand Place Hall

Monday 9th brought a second concert by the Dresden Staatskapelle and Myung-Whun Chung. The Overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) is rarely less than an effective curtain-raiser and proved so here, Chung teasing out its vehemence but also humanity before an affirmative close. Enescu’s Sept Chansons de Clément Marot (1908) has become more familiar in one of several arrangements than in its piano original, and Chung duly made the most of Theodore Grigoriu’s atmospheric orchestration that underlines the wistful pathos and ribald humour of these winsome miniatures. It helped that Laura Aitkin (classiest of late replacements) was so attuned to their unforced eloquence; only occasionally heard in the UK, she remains among the most technically adept and expressively alluring lyric sopranos during the present era.

After the interval, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (1885) offered a stern if hardly unfamiliar test for the Staatskapelle which this most innately Germanic of orchestras met convincingly if not flawlessly. There was a certain restiveness in the earlier stages of the opening movement that was not dispelled until part-way through the development, but the reprise was breathtakingly launched then its coda lacked nothing in stoic intensity. The Andante was deliberate yet never stolid in manner, its covert fatalism to the fore at its climax and twilit closing pages, while the scherzo generated due impetus over its ebullient course. The passacaglia did not quite unfold as an unbroken entity, but encroaching inevitability was never in doubt as Chung ratcheted up tension towards its starkly conclusive goal. An arresting and, taken overall, gripping account.

An appearance by the Romanian Youth Orchestra and Michael Sanderling on Tuesday 10th brought a demanding programme this ensemble took, for the most part, in its stride. Concert Românesc (1951) has latterly established itself as the most engaging and prophetic of Ligeti’s early ‘Hungarian’ works, and Sanderling encouraged an incisive as well as sensuous response in its first three movements, before giving the orchestra its head in a finale whose uproarious high-jinx proved a sure-fire hit. He may have to be led on and off the platform, but Nobuyuki Tsujii demonstrated formidable technique in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto (1901). Not a reading of great insight, but one whose spontaneity and poetry was its own justification. If a certain vulnerability was evident, moreover, the composer would surely not have objected.

It can hardly be a coincidence that Schoenberg’s 1937 arrangement of Brahms’s First Piano Quartet (1861) has now become a staple of the repertoire for youth orchestra, and the present outfit audibly relished its often interventionist while always idiomatic approach – the sombre hues of the opening Allegro as palpably as the recalcitrant humour of the ensuing Intermezzo, with Schoenberg’s layered orchestration lacking little in clarity. Mindful not to overplay the martial fireworks at the centre of its Andante, Sanderling ensured the surrounding music had the requisite soulfulness, before keeping the ‘Rondo alla zingarese’ finale on a tight though flexible rein prior to its cadenza for solo strings (where Schoenberg looks back four decades) then a final return of the rondo theme which duly inspired playing of scintillating brilliance.

It may be an unwieldy title, but the ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’ State Academic Symphony Orchestra has a notable history reaching back for almost 85 years and under current principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski has regained much of its eminence. Its concert on Wednesday 11th began with De Profundis (2010) by Ukrainian-born Austrian figure Alexey Retinsky – an imposing statement audibly in the lineage of Schnittke or Kancheli, and ideally suited to this orchestra – whether in its vast inexorable crescendos or seething climaxes that eventually subside into silence. Quite a contrast with Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto (1956), its sophisticated naivety well realized by Alexandra Silocea (her disc of the first five Prokofiev sonatas (Avie) is worth investigating) – not least given the combative accompaniment secured by Jurowski.

Jurowski has been a leading figure in the revival of Enescu’s orchestral music over this past decade, and his reading of the Second Symphony (1914) accordingly left little to be desired. A failure at its 1915 premiere, the piece remained un-played for another 46 years and had not been given at this festival since 2011. If not probing its ultimate depths, Jurowski undoubtedly had its measure – whether in the introspection as gradually overcomes the extroversion of the initial movement, haunted nostalgia of the central Andante whose folk-like melody is always heard at a remove, or the finale with its dramatic processional as carries over to a cumulative revisiting of themes with an intricacy and panache much in evidence here. Enescu’s Second is among the great symphonies of its era, as was made plain by this evening’s performance.

Earlier and rather more modest Enescu opened this orchestra’s second concert on Thursday 12th. Acclaimed at its Paris premiere, Pastorale-Fantaisie (1899) subsequently went unheard until 2017 when it was revived by tonight’s conductor Gabriel Bebeşelea. A compact while eventful piece, drawing on the cyclical processes of Frank (notably the second movement of his Symphony in D minor), it made for a diverting entrée into a programme that continued with Korngold’s now ubiquitous Violin Concerto (1945). A number of recent performances have attempted to uncover depths not so much hidden as non-existent, but Ray Chen’s keen projection and vibrant tone were well suited to this music. Chen responded to well-deserved applause with his own ‘concert paraphrase’ on the Australian evergreen Waltzing Matilda.

Increasingly familiar on European podia (not least a well-received Cadogan Hall concert with the Royal Philharmonic earlier this year), Bebeşelea is evidently a conductor ‘on the up’ and his reading of Tchaikovsky’s symphony Manfred harnessed technical discipline with a highly imaginative take on this sometimes discursive exploration of individual destiny in the face of overwhelming fate. The sombre first movement headed impressively to its impassioned coda, with the scherzo lacking little in whimsical fantasy or the Andante in wistful eloquence. Nor did the long finale hang fire, Bebeşelea finding the balance between its frenetic outbursts and inward musings on the way to a fully cathartic apotheosis (harmonium laudably in evidence). A leading exponent of the piece, Evgeny Svetlanov would surely have bestowed his approval.

Vasily Petrenko is another returning visitor to the festival, and his second concert on Saturday 14th with the Oslo Philharmonic gave notice of the excellence this orchestra can frequently attain. If not the most visceral or distinctive account of Richard Strauss’s Don Juan (1888), it could hardly have been more cohesive, Petrenko knitting together its descriptive episodes such that the (tragic?) conclusion felt inevitable. His single completed work for soloist and orchestra, Enescu’s Sinfonia Concertante (1901) has belatedly found its way to the cello repertoire and Johannes Moser joins a notable roster. His warmly inward tone under-projected the pensive first half, but there was no lack of incisiveness thereafter – with Petrenko making the most of its impulsive tuttis. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of this singular work were fully evident.

After the interval, as impressive a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (1888) as one is likely to hear. Not that Petrenko did anything overly individual or unexpected, but his fashioning of an integrated overall entity paid dividends in a piece which so often fails to be more than the sum of its best parts. The ‘motto’ theme was stoically while never sluggishly drawn, leading into an Allegro that never felt histrionic. The Andante was the highlight (as also of this work) – its horn melody ineffably rendered, and climactic return of the ‘motto’ seamlessly effected. The waltz had guile in-amid its elegance, while the problematic (in all senses) finale unfolded methodically yet grippingly to a peroration shorn of bombast then a coda of thrilling decisiveness. Petrenko’s laconic manner barely concealed his satisfaction.

    ‘Midnight’ Concerts at the Athenaeum

It might not be a household name, but the Bucharest Chamber Orchestra can more than hold its own against more high-profile ensembles. Conductor Mădălin Voicu (equally known as a politician) began their concert on Tuesday 10th with Benedetto Marcello’s Introduction, Aria and Presto (c1730), here arranged by Etore Bonelli from a harpsichord sonata and a welcome alternative to Albinoni/Giazotto, Pachelbel et al. Mihaela Martin partnered them in Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto (1775), most ambitious (while not the finest) of his cycle to which she was well suited – whether in the sprightly contrasts of the initial Allegro, suave elegance of the Adagio or deft wit of the final Rondeau with those robust Turkish overtones at its centre. Voicu ensured time to breathe throughout, yet without the piece ever outstaying its welcome.

The nature and content of these ‘midnight’ concerts varies widely, and if it would be foolish not to expect intervals during opera or oratorio performances, a programme such as tonight’s hardly needed an extended break. In the event, the audience dispersed and then reassembled for a second half consisting merely of Haydn’s Eighty-Fifth Symphony (1786) which, given here without repeats, came in at around 22 minutes. That said, Voicu and his players did not disappoint in ‘La Reine’, fourth (as published) of the six symphonies its composer wrote for Paris and one which helped establish Haydn’s name in the capitals of Western Europe. While the Romanza’s winsome set of variations upon a French folksong is the ostensible highlight, the other movements were equally engaging and Voicu secured a suitably incisive response.

Whether to have or not to have an interval was even more pertinent for the late concert on Sunday 15th, René Jacobs directing the Freiburger Barockorchester and Sing-Akademie of Zurich in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (1823). Arguably the greatest and certainly the most inclusive of the far-reaching works from his last decade, its intrinsic qualities have emerged in constantly changing focus over recent decades such that Jacobs’s approach takes its place within a spectrum of interpretations having comparable validity. More the reason why such an undertaking should be heard as an unbroken continuity; whereas here, a 25-minute break after the ‘Credo’ (the Atheneum being ill-suited to any swift reassembly) made for a second half of barely 30 minutes – hardly the ideal way of experiencing Beethoven’s majestic epic.

All of which is not to decry those qualities of the actual performance. Among the most highly regarded of current authenticists (not least for his cycle of Mozart operas), Jacobs is someone with a mission and his interpretation was nothing if not distinctive. He was abetted in this by the consistently fine singing of the vocal quartet – with the soaring lyricism of soprano Polina Pastirchack complemented by the resonant force of bass Johannes Weisser; the mezzo Sophie Harmsen and tenor Nikolaus Pfannkuch filling out the vocal spectrum to a convincing degree. Placing the orchestra behind soloists and chorus arguably sacrificed detail, while facilitating timbral balance at expressive cruxes. The profundity of Harnoncourt may have been absent, but the tenacity and fervency of Beethoven’s all-encompassing vision were always apparent.

All in all, a representative selection that had to leave out significant programming aspects – most notably the concert performances of opera which ranged from Beethoven’s Leonore, via Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, to Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, and included such rarities as Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher along with a range of Baroque and Classical stage-works. The 25th Edition two years hence will be the last to feature Vladimir Jurowski as artistic director and, moreover, Mihai Constantinescu, who is stepping down as executive director after 30 years in that role. Whoever succeeds him should most likely determine the direction of the Enescu Festival, which will hopefully continue to place Romania’s greatest composer at the core of what has become a seminal fixture on the European music calendar.

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