Written by: Richard Whitehouse
Twentieth Edition (September 1-25)
Various Venues, Bucharest
September 9-16, 2011
For one whose memory of Bucharest on a visit some eighteen years ago was of a city struggling through an arduous transition after the fall of the Ceauşescu regime, the Romanian capital now emerges as a vibrant and outward-looking metropolis in which past problems can at least be assessed from the vantage of a steadily evolving present towards a (hopefully) constructive future. An ideal environment, then, for the George Enescu Festival. Founded in 1958, it endured years of stagnation during the 1970s and 1980s before emerging in the mid-1990s, under the artistic directorship of Ioan Hollander, with a determinedly international profile that has attracted a wealth of high-profile soloists, orchestras and conductors. This twentieth edition, organized by the cultural institution ARTEXIM under its executive director Mihai Constantinescu, has proved to be much the most ambitious yet – admirably so given that the whole 25-day festival has come in at around eight million Euros.
Twenty-five days, moreover, that took in a whole range of musical, theatrical and other artistic events so that it would be logistically impossible to attend every one of them. The festival also encompasses the Enescu International Competition – which features awards for violin, cello, piano and composition – along with the first edition of the E-Biennale, an innovative exhibition devoted to contemporary visual arts as curated by Ilina Schileru. Whether or not the Festival will, in time, take on a ‘fringe’ akin to that of Edinburgh remains to be seen, though it is fortunately unlikely that the focal-point will be other than the music of George Enescu.
Fortunately because Enescu remains the one ‘great’ composer whose greatness is not generally recognised by the wider public or critical fraternity. While his chamber music has largely gained acceptance, performances of that for orchestra are infrequent (not least in the UK) – so making the opportunity to hear almost the whole of his mature output (only the Second Romanian Rhapsody and First Orchestral Suite were missing from this year’s Festival, which may or may not have been occasioned by the absence of Enescu from the programmes of the London Symphony Orchestra and Staatskapelle Berlin) one not to be missed. Mention should be made of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, which were left incomplete by the composer and sensitively realised by Pascal Bentoiu, and the ‘symphonic adagio’ Isis – receiving only its third hearing at the hands of Christian Lupeş, one of the younger Romanian conductors now poised to make an impact on the international scene.
Among the several performance venues, there could be none more attractive than the Romanian Atheneum – akin to the Royal Albert Hall in its circular construction and lavishly decorated exterior, though its acoustic is anything but reverberant. Capable of accommodating a full orchestra, the platform is nevertheless best suited to smaller forces of Friday’s late-evening concert, the first of three by the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra with Christian Zacharias. As a regular feature of the Festival, these events quite evidently attracted a full house – centred as they were on those archetypal mid-Romantics Mendelssohn and Schumann.
The present programme was devoted to the latter composer, Zacharias directing from the piano an account of the Concert Allegro with Introduction (1853) which brought out the wistful rhapsodising of its initial section but also the rather effortful continuity of what follows. Joining them in the Cello Concerto (1850), Antonio Meneses evinced a burnished tone and seamless phrasing which were ideal in the autumnal slow movement, yet his often overwrought passagework made heavy weather of the first movement and also undermined the vitality of the finale. After the interval, the Second Symphony (1846) got off to a slightly uncertain start but, thereafter, the momentum of the first movement was adroitly handled and the scherzo lacked only a little in impetus (though the coda could have accelerated more intently), then the Adagio convincingly tempered its introspection with a searching eloquence and, though its rhetoric was a little too reined-in, the finale surged powerfully to its close. An animated and occasionally distracting presence, Zacharias did not use a baton but brought a wealth of inflection and nuance to the interpretations through his constantly varied hand gestures. Good, too, to hear a chamber orchestra that still counts depth of string tone as an asset of its music-making.
Saturday evening’s concert took place on the opposite side of the Piaţa Revoluţiei in the Grand Hall of the Palace, an imposing building whose auditorium once apparently seated around 5,000 people before its refurbishment reduced that number appreciably. It still remains among the larger European concert halls – with an acoustic which, in its slightly congested balance at climaxes and tendency to throw the sound forward so that a lack of perspective results, feels akin to that of London’s Barbican Hall. Qualities such as were intermittently evident in this enterprising programme by the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra with Gennady Rozhdestvensky.
A conductor whose breadth of interest seems virtually limitless, Rozhdestvensky has championed Enescu live and through recordings, though Vox Maris appears not to feature in his discography. Mythical in its inaccessibility during the composer’s lifetime and not performed until almost a decade after his death, this piece was conceived in the late 1920s and worked on until the early 1950s. The result is a symphonic poem whose three continuous sections outline a trajectory as tonally and emotionally distilled as any of the late chamber works, its almost incidental contributions from tenor and (wordless) chorus adding a subtle resonance to music already rich in evocative imagery. Marius Vlad Budoiu was an ardent ‘soloist’ and the GEPO Chorus had been well prepared: unfortunately the orchestral playing, while not inadequate as such, too often sounded effortful – robbing the music of its luminosity and hieratic grandeur. The audience was not unreasonably sceptical in its response.
Worse was to follow, however, in an account of Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto (1912) where a combination of rushed playing from soloist Victoria Postnikova and earthbound direction from Rozhdestvensky conspired to turn the composer’s youthful joie de vivre into a shrill and superficial display with few, if any redeeming features. That the orchestra could play better was confirmed after the interval in a rare outing for Prokofiev’s music for Eisenstein’s films Ivan the Terrible (1946), here in the oratorio version by Alexander Stasevich. At almost 70 minutes this can be a protracted listen, yet the skill with which Rozhdestvensky knitted together its many vocal and orchestral sections made for a cumulative emotional impact. Soulful and suave contributions from Larissa Dyadkova and Alexey Tanovitsky, but Igor Chernevich’s earnest narration was upstaged by the conductor who rendered Ivan’s monologues with a deadpan wit that stole the show – no doubt intentionally.
Sunday evening found this venue occupied by the Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra for the first of two concerts with Valery Gergiev. Overtures are now often conspicuous by their absence in concert programmes, but that to Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845) is an ideal curtain-raiser and Gergiev vividly caught its alternating between solemnity and abandon before a thrilling peroration. If Scriabin’s Prometheus (1910) was less satisfying, this was not only because Gergiev did without its wordless choral part – vital to the sensuous soundworld which this music evokes – but also through the tendency to render it as a sequence of disconnected episodes whose brazen apotheosis felt unwarranted and whose ecstatic close seemed fortuitous. Alexander Toradze contributed scintillating pianism, but the work overall felt less than the sum of its parts. Not so Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (1898), whose indulgent qualities were checked by the disciplined orchestral response and an approach that emphasised symphonic continuity over mere scene-painting. Graphically as the Hero’s battle with and triumph over his adversaries was depicted, it was the final resignation and withdrawal which (rightly) left the deepest and most lasting impression. The Prelude to Act Three of Wagner’s Lohengrin then made for a rousing encore.
The second Mariinsky concert on the following evening was most notable for its inclusion of Enescu’s Third Symphony (1918). Created in the darkest days of war, the piece has been likened to a Dante-esque triptych of Purgatory, Hell and Paradise, yet it more directly equates to a (strictly non-ideological) progression of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Gergiev placed especial emphasis on the first movement, whose gradually unfolding formal process tended to congeal at so spacious a tempo, though there was no denying the sumptuousness of the playing or, in the second movement, the alacrity with which the music’s often uninhibited aggression was conveyed. While not lacking inwardness, the finale lacked the transcendent rapture it surely possesses, for all that the wordless choral part was sensitively rendered by the Academic Chorus of Romanian Radio. The final pages faded out rather matter-of-factly instead of evanescing into silence, ending a notable if flawed reading.
A reading that was not helped by the baffling context in which it was placed. Opening with Rodion Shchedrin’s Naughty Limericks (1963) no doubt provided a bracing ‘warm up’ for the players, but this self-conscious and contrived exercise in stylistic clichés – influential in its day (not least on the composer/conductor HK Gruber, also appearing at the festival) – does not wear well in an age where such studied trivialities are commonplace. After the interval came Ravel’s 1922 orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in an account surprisingly fallible in execution. Highlights were an elegiac ‘The Old Castle’ (replete with some melting alto-saxophone playing) and a stark ‘Catacombs’ with its otherworldly rendering of the ‘Promenade’ theme which follows. Yet ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, while avoiding portentousness, had a brittle immediacy that made for a less than majestic close. At least the encore of Liadov’s Baba Yaga had lightness of touch and deft humour.
Late-afternoon concerts are a further prominent feature of the Festival. That on Tuesday brought a visit by Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Symphony Orchestra with Lawrence Foster, whose Enescu credentials are second to none. He directed a captivating account of the Third Orchestral Suite (1938), subtitled ‘Villageoise’ and the most refined yet also most approachable of the composer’s later orchestral works. Thus ‘The Countryside Anew’ had a suffused warmth and ‘Children Out of Doors’ an engaging whimsy; Foster might have made even more of the magical evocative central movement – its recollection of time and place as expressively poised as it is texturally fastidious – yet there was no doubting his identity with surely Enescu’s most perfectly realised music, while the mesmeric calm of ‘River in the Moonlight’ cast a comparable spell before the robust humour of ‘Country Dances’ brought its listeners vividly down to earth. A fine performance of a unique composition.
Here the other works coalesced as an overall programme. In the first half, Charles Ives’s The Fourth of July (1913) built rapidly and also inexorably towards its riotous climax, while Dana Ciocârlie was the fluent and engaging pianist in Bernstein’s Second Symphony (1949) – closely modelled on W. H. Auden’s cycle of poetry The Age of Anxiety – bringing both energy and drama to music whose often dutiful variation sequences and surprisingly functional orchestration (save for the scintillating ‘Masque’ episode in Part Two) can feel less than inspiring. After the Enescu, the second half closed with Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (1945) – better known as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and given a reading that brought out the ingenuity of the composer’s response to what could have been an all too didactic exercise. Nor was its showpiece aspect neglected, as the Fugue culminated in the resplendent return of Purcell’s indelible theme.
A fine concert, with that at 5 p.m. on Wednesday even finer. The pianist turned conductor (though not exclusively so) Zoltán Kocsis had decided on a tough programme, but one to which the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra was more than equal. The music of Bartók and Enescu offers up endless stimulating points of comparison: the former being represented by the Dance Suite (1923) – his breakthrough work, given a charged though never inflexible reading that exuded real energy going into the propulsive finale – and the Second Piano Concerto (1931), Boris Berezovsky the soloist in a performance that perhaps played down the glacial remoteness of the Adagio (though not the effervescence of its central scherzo) but infused the outer movements with irresistible panache. A gripping account, after which Berezovsky still had enough in reserve for contrasting encores of Albéniz’s haunting Asturias and Morton Gould’s irresistible Boogie-Woogie Etude.
After the interval, Kocsis tackled (from memory) Enescu’s Second Symphony (1914). A springboard between the first and second phases of his creative maturity, this ranks among the most intricately realised of all the composer’s orchestral works – its salient motifs, easily identifiable in themselves, being subject to a host of metamorphoses over its 45-minute span; such that the outwardly clear divisions between its three movements are made relative to the evolution of the work as a whole. That said, the opening movement is among Enescu’s most ebullient statements and its successor centres on a clarinet theme of plaintive beauty; the energetic finale is preceded by a substantial, march-like introduction that is balanced by an coda in which all of the thematic elements are combined in a complex and uninhibited apotheosis. Kocsis and his players did ample justice to a work which was heard just once in its composer’s lifetime, making for an undoubted highlight of the Festival.
Later that evening in the Palace, Staatskapelle Berlin with Daniel Barenboim gave the second of two concerts (the first having featured Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto, K491, and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony). Barenboim’s pianism these days often gives pause for thought, but in Mozart’s E flat Piano Concerto (1785, K271) he gave of something approaching his best – scaling down his tone as appropriate and effecting some exquisite interplay with the woodwind in the serenade-like passages of the slow movement and finale. Contrast was provided by Liszt’s A Dante Symphony (1856), enjoying its timely revival in the bicentenary of the composer’s birth. Under Barenboim, the ‘Inferno’ impressed by sheer weight of sound and coursing drama, though the depiction of Paolo and Francesca lacked little in intimacy, then the ‘Purgatorio’ eloquently unfolded its harmonic and contrapuntal ingenuities through to an ethereal evocation of Paradise – the women of the George Enescu Philharmonic and Romanian Radio orchestras (placed at the rear of the auditorium) not always coordinated yet deserving their ovation.
Thursday evening brought a culmination in all respects with the staging at the Bucharest National Opera (an imposing though far from ostentatious building such as amply reflects the city’s opulence and sophistication during the latter nineteenth-century) of Oedipe, Enescu’s only opera and much the most ambitious of all his works. Conceived around 1910 but not begun in earnest until 1921, its composition (notably an orchestration which is subtle and felicitous even by the standards of the composer’s later orchestral music) took just over a decade and the premiere, in Paris, came not until 1936. Well received then and at subsequent performances, it has never established itself in the operatic repertoire: doubtless its considerable (though never unreasonable) vocal and orchestral demands, allied to its being an essentially inward and humanistic drama, has militated against any wider acceptance (other than a concert rendition at Edinburgh in 2003, there has yet to be a UK performance), yet as an inclusive synthesis of its composer’s technical and expressive concerns it has few equals. This performance, whatever its flaws in execution, undeniably did justice to some of Enescu’s most affecting music while vindicating the opera as one which remains relevant to the contemporary stage.
Among the performers, Stefan Ignat was a brave and fearless Oedipus – as ‘in-character’ as a doubting youth in the first act as a questing warrior and would-be-heroic king in those that follow, and as a seer-like presence in the final act. Horia Sandu brought eloquence as well as sagacity to Tiresias, while Ionuţ Pascu tempered the ruthlessness of Creon with keen vulnerability. Oana Andra made the most of Jocasta’s increasingly desperate entreaties, with Simona Neagu a touching Antigonae and Ecaterina Tuţu a memorable Sphinx in all respects. The secondary roles were ably taken (Edmond Fleg’s often-fanciful libretto was given in the original French with Romanian surtitles), while Tiberiu Soare secured a committed response from his choral and orchestral forces – not without its rough edges, and with the latter struggling in passages which would have benefitted from more rehearsal, yet giving notice of a true theatrical sensibility. The staging by Anda Tabacaru Hogea, with monumental sets by Viorica Petrovici and visceral choreography by Răzvan Mazilu, enhanced without overwhelming the music. A pity that two intervals were needed – this being a four-act opera best experienced as two equal halves – yet the power as well as the pathos, indeed the greatness of Oedipe were rarely absent.
It would be impossible, having spent merely a week at this Festival, to give a detailed overview of its contents. What does seem certain is the degree to which ambition has been matched by success in bringing off so many events to the highest standards – vital not least in its implications for Romania’s domestic orchestras, which only stand to gain from exposure in an ‘international’ context. Much the same could be said of the music of Enescu – its artistic credentials are hardly in doubt yet which still suffers from an erroneous perspective that sees it as a more nationalistic and hence lower counterpart to that of Bartók. The best of these performances assuredly proved otherwise, and it can only be hoped that the conductors include their respective pieces in their schedules both at home and on tour. Meanwhile, the twenty-first edition of the George Enescu Festival in 2013 is planned in all essentials and should be as worthy of attendance as this edition has manifestly been.