Feature Review – George Enescu Festival, 21st Edition

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Bucharest, Romania

13-26 September 2013

George Enescu (1881-1955)


The 21st edition of the George Enescu Festival continued on from its predecessors over the past decade in featuring a wide range of concerts, recitals, operas, ballets and theatrical events – along with a notably expanded coverage of the visual and plastic arts. Around 200 performances across 28 days would be a tall order for any month-long arts festival, and to have managed this on a budget hardly comparable to those in Western Europe is some achievement. Budgetary constraints in fact meant that the long-established Enescu Competition for musicians and composers has had to be held over until next year, though this was more than justified in order to enable the festival programme to go ahead as scheduled.

Numerous venues were utilised (not least the Mihail Jora Hall of Romanian Radio and Television, which has much the best acoustic among the several music venues in Bucharest), but most of the main events took place either at the visually impressive Athenaeum (akin to a smaller version of the Royal Albert Hall) or the Palace which, though its capacity has been scaled down in the post-Ceauçescu era, is still among the largest though far from the most sympathetic such places in Europe (imagine an enlarged Royal Festival Hall auditorium with the Barbican Hall acoustic). Those events attended are discussed according to venue – including two recitals in the Small Hall (akin to Hall One at Kings Place) of the Palace.

Recitals at the Small Hall of the Palace

Altenberg Trio. Photograph: calartists.mymcn.org

Saturday the 14th saw a morning recital from the Altenberg Trio of Vienna, an enterprising ensemble whose repertoire takes in the full extent of the medium. Shostakovich’s First Piano Trio is an attractive if largely uncharacteristic piece that has only found favour in recent years, and this account did justice to its alternating shades of Rachmaninov and Brahms over the course of a one-movement format. The Piano Trio in A minor by Enescu was largely inaccessible until Pascal Bentoiu made his edition during 1998 from the composer’s hastily written score, resulting in a concise while often austere piece whose three movements – the central one an ingenious theme and variations – represent a transition towards the modal harmonies and stratified textures of Enescu’s maturity. The Schubert Ensemble recently recorded its own edition, which differs in numerous points of detail, but the Altenberg Trio made a fine case for the present realisation – pointing up the work’s proximity to Ravel’s Piano Trio, which closed the recital and in which the plangent initial Moderato then the sombre introspection of the passacaglia slow movement were ideally judged. A brace of encores – the sprightly finale of Haydn’s Piano Trio in C (No.27), and last of Schumann’s Six Studies for Player Piano (arranged by Theodor Kirchner) – rounded off a recital which fairly reinforced the claims of the Altenberg Trio to being the leading ensemble in its field.

Saturday the 21st brought the impressive duo of violinist Laurent Albrecht Breuninger and pianist Thomas Duis for a recital which opened with Debussy’s Violin Sonata, the composer’s last completed work and typical in its alternation between pensive musing and brusque humour. In contrast to its formal concision and expressive economy, the Violin Sonata of Vierne is a substantial piece notable for its impassioned opening Allegro and a finale which combines an elaborate fugue with thematic allusions to earlier movements on its way to a powerful apotheosis that was thrillingly conveyed here. Some (re)discovery, whereas the Third Violin Sonata of Enescu has established itself among the classics of the duo medium – its synthesis of Romanian folk traits with the harmonic and textural sophistication of its composer’s maturity resulting in a spellbinding work of which these performers audibly had the measure, not least in the inward communing of the central Andante and a finale whose seismic closing peroration stretches the instruments to their limit. Breuninger and Duis took it their collective stride and returned for a dashing account of Ravel’s Tzigane, where the gypsy element is presented rather more earthily. A partnership of which much can be expected, the musicians responded to the generous applause with two Kreisler miniatures – the whimsical Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice, then the affectionate Schön Rosmarin.

Concerts and Recitals at the Athenaeum

Enrique Mazzola. Photograph: © Miquel Perales

Friday 13th brought the Orchestre National d’Île-de-France and its chief conductor Enrique Mazzola for a programme of French music. Not an ensemble overly familiar outside France, it breezed through the alternate syncopation and suavity of Ibert’s Bacchanale with alacrity, then provided an attentive accompaniment for Claire-Marie Le Guay in Honegger’s Piano Concertino – an engaging instance of his short-lived association with then fashionable jazz idioms – before turning to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which demands and accordingly summoned a far wider emotional range. With her attention to detail and subtlety of nuance, in addition to her comprehensive technique, Le Guay is certainly a pianist to listen out for. After the interval, Mazzola led a lively though often untidy account of Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit – a once-popular ballet that reveals almost all its polytonal and poly-metric surprises within its opening two minutes, only to spin them out with ever-decreasing returns for a further 20 – then brought a widescreen expressive immediacy to the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, which sounded all the more substantial in consequence. The Prelude to Bizet’s Carmen provided a suitably rumbustious encore, so rounding off a concert which revealed the ONIF to be a spirited and capable outfit – albeit one that performs consistently only within a well-defined comfort zone.

Sunday 15th saw a visit by the Harmonious Chamber Orchestra of Osaka with its conductor Otomo Naoto, a disciplined yet never unyielding string outfit whose enterprising programme began with Yasushi Akutagawa’s Triptic, an animated and likable score with overtones of inter-war Hindemith, before continuing with André Jolivet’s Flute Concerto – a piece whose brand of purposeful neo-Classicism is enlivened by typically astute harmonic shifts. The Romanian flautist Ionuţ Bogdan Ştefānescu was an adept and imaginative soloist, who responded to the enthusiastic applause with a scintillating account of Piazzolla’s Libertango as arranged by Dan Dediu. After the interval came Enescu’s Octet – the most monumental and densely contrapuntal of his earlier works, heard in a version for two-dozen players which, while it arguably sacrificed something of the music’s inner intensity, still brought out all the corresponding formal strength and expressive power of a piece whose thematic evolution draws its four highly contrasted movements into an overarching and ingenious continuity. Naoto and the HCO assuredly had the measure of this impressive work, not least the seismic finale with its combining of all the main themes against an inexorable waltz rhythm. Impressive playing, then, and the musicians had enough in reserve for the slow movement from Mamoru Samuragochi’s First Symphony (Hiroshima), which served as the touching encore.

Wednesday the 18th brought the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra with its dynamic and versatile conductor James Gaffigan in a programme that opened with Isis – a ‘symphonic adagio’ Enescu left in sketch-form in 1922 and which was sensitively realised by the doyen of living Romanian composers Pascal Bentoiu 77 years on. With its interplay of post-impressionist harmonic elements redolent of Szymanowski and continually unfolding melodic lines that point to Enescu’s later music, it stands as one of the latter’s most bewitching pieces and was ably rendered – its underlying tempo just a little too fast for the music’s eloquence fully to register, though with the enticing contribution of the Preludiu Choir (trained by Voicu Enāchescu) ideally integrated into the overall texture. Fazil Say then joined the Lucerne Symphony for Mozart’s C major Piano Concerto (No.21, K467), and a reading whose many insights were not a little compromised by the pianist’s tendency to ‘shadow conduct’ and also act out the solo part, though his transcriptions of Gershwin’s Summertime and Mozart’s AllaTurca (based on the finale of the Piano Sonata K331) left no doubt as to his technical panache. After the interval, a lucid and scrupulously prepared performance of Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony (No.104) confirmed the rapport between orchestra and conductor – a partnership to reckon with that was no less evident in the trenchant reading of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances that made for a generous encore.

Jean-Claude Pennetier. Photograph: sartoryartists.com

Saturday 21st saw a thoughtfully programmed recital by Jean-Claude Pennetier. After the wistful introspection of Fauré’s Twelfth Nocturne and the easeful motion of his Eleventh Barcarolle, the much wider expressive reach of Enescu’s First Piano Sonata reminded one just how resourcefully the latter composer channelled his formative influences – Pennetier bringing a Debussyian rumination to the first movement, a proto-Messiaenic fervour to the central scherzo then a Fauréian serenity to the finale – rounding off a fine performance of a work which has yet to enter the repertoire. After the interval came thoughtful accounts of Debussy’s ‘La Cathédrale engloutie (tenth in the First Book of Préludes) and ‘Cloches á travers les feuilles’ (No.2 in the Second Book of Images); followed by a rare outing for Busoni’s Sonatina Seconda – harmonically the most radical of his piano works, in which Pennetier ably captured the music’s extremes of inward speculation and eruptive anger. The recital closed with the Second Book (Nos. 7-12) of Debussy’s Études – their formidable technical hurdles not always faultlessly surmounted, though with their capricious and often teasingly oblique expression potently conveyed. Pennetier is an intuitive and wholly sympathetic exponent of this still underestimated repertoire, as was underlined by his encore in the guise of Fauré’s warmly effusive Sixth Nocturne.

Saturday 21st’s late-night concert saw the Academy of St Martin in the Fields reunited with its founder and long-time conductor Sir Neville Marriner for a Mendelssohn programme. Ruy Blas was given a taut and no-nonsense reading that made the most of its effervescent coda, while the evergreen E minor Violin Concerto survived initial uncertainties of coordination to result in a confiding while never sentimental account of its slow movement and a witty rendering of its finale. Boris Brovtsyn played commandingly, if with a hint that he may be better suited to music of more up-front virtuosity, but there was no doubting his technical ability here in or in a nonchalant account of Ysaÿe’s ‘Danse rustique’(from his Fifth Solo Sonata) as encore. After the interval, what was billed as complete incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream proved otherwise – comprising only the ‘Scherzo’, ‘You spotted snakes’, ‘Intermezzo’ (without ‘Entry of the Rustics’), ‘Nocturne’, ‘Wedding March’ (without repeats) and ‘Finale’; while the Overture was little more than half its length by omitting almost the entire second half. A pity, as the contributions of soprano Irina Iordăchescu and mezzo-soprano Maria Jinga were both excellent, as was that of the George Enescu Philharmonic Choir (prepared by Iosif Ion Prunner), while to see Marriner – in his 90th year – so animated and communicative on the podium was a real pleasure.

Wednesday 25th brought the Camerata Salzburg with its principal conductor Louis Langrée for an attractive and well-balanced programme that got underway with Enescu’s Two Intermezzos for strings – deceptively light pieces in which Langrée was as attentive to the wistful charm of the first as to the searching eloquence of its successor. Hilary Hahn then gave an account of Mozart’s G major Violin Concerto (K216) that was intimate, even whimsical without selling short the music’s formal dexterity. Hahn returned after the interval for a captivating account of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending – a piece that can all too easily become the aural equivalent of a Laura Ashley catalogue, but which here evinced an inner strength and purpose to remind one that this was written as much in the shadow of war as were several other of the composer’s more imposing works from the period, with the Camerata unfailingly attuned to its ruminative poise. Hahn’s encore was a rapt account of the ‘Sarabande’ from J. S. Bach’s D minor Partita, reminding of Hahn’s long-time eminence in this music. The concert ended with Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony (No.41, K551) in a fine if not especially probing performance that was just a touch stolid in the opening Allegro and missed out on some of the slow movement’s pathos. The remaining movements were never less then enjoyable – likewise the Overture to La nozze di Figaro as a lively encore.

Concerts at the Great Hall of the Palace

Friday 13th brought the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski for the first of two concerts beginning with a decent if unspectacular start with a reading of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture that lacked fantasy in the introduction and was less than wholly evocative in the Orthodox-permeated music elsewhere. Anika Vavic then joined them for Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, which, while by no means the ultimate in charisma, had its share of insights (the solo first variation in the second movement has rarely sounded more poetic) to suggest Vavic as no mean exponent of this most perfectly realised among its composer’s piano concertos: an impression furthered by the tenth Vision Fugitive that provided a scintillating encore. After the interval came Bruckner’s First Symphony – a work that Jurowski has championed over several seasons and in which he makes arguably the best case yet for the unadulterated ‘Linz version’ edited by William Carragan. Not that Jurowski applied any real interpretative slant or indulged in any idiosyncrasies, preferring to let the clear-cut formal contours and vibrant expression of this still underestimated work speak for itself. The outcome, as the apotheosis of the finale passed into silence, was an often riveting account that evidently commended itself to the enthusiastic audience.

Raoul Pugno & Eugène Ysaÿe

Logistical problems deprived listeners of the opportunity to hear Enescu’s Second Symphony in what was to have been an enterprising concert from the young Romanian conductor Cristian Lupeş. The Third Symphony was heard at the LPO’s concert on Saturday 14th – preceded by Brahms’s Violin Concerto featuring Leonidas Kavakos and whose main drawback was too leisurely a first movement, in the context of which its successor lacked contrast when treated as a full-blown slow movement. Not that Kavakos’s playing was anything less than magisterial, while his crackling virtuosity in the finale and high-flown eloquence in the encores – the ‘Allemande’ from Ysaÿe’s Fourth Solo Sonata) and the Andante from Bach’s Sonata in A (BWV1015) – was playing of the highest order. As to the Enescu, this was a highlight of the festival – Jurowski hardly putting a foot wrong over the 50 minutes of a work whose recourse to modal tonality and heterophonic textures results in music of great luminosity and emotional breadth. Whether in the trenchant forward movement of the opening Moderato, the surging animation and explosive climax of the central Vivace, or the enveloping transcendence of the closing Largo (the Academic Radio Chorus, trained by Dan Mihai Goia, radiant in its heady vocalise), this was a performance to treasure. Rarely, too, can the absence of an encore have been more welcome.

Enescu was also featured in the opening half of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra’s first concert on Tuesday the 17th. The Symphonie Concertante seems never to have overcome its disastrous premiere in 1909, yet this compact and ingeniously organised piece – its two continuous movements afforded cohesion by the soloist’s ever-present melodic line – is a sure pointer towards its composer’s later development as well as being an absorbing and often unpredictable listen in its own right. Certainly it had a dedicated exponent in Gautier Capuçon, whose abundant virtuosity was meaningfully deployed throughout and who was attentively accompanied by the MPO under the watchful eye of Semyon Bychkov. Capuçon returned for the engaging final piece in Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, while Bychkov himself offered Mahler’s First Symphony after the interval. If this offered little in the way of fresh insights, it was rarely less than successful in conveying the audacity of a work whose decade-long transformation from symphonic poem to symphony itself mirrored the composer’s changing musical convictions. While not the most tonally resplendent of ensembles, the MPO is hardly lacking in quality –witnessed by the precision of the strings’ harmonics in the mesmeric opening pages, with such treacherous passages as the solo double bass melody at the start of the slow movement effortlessly rendered.

Wednesday 18th again featured the Munich Philharmonic for an all-French concert that began with Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, and a performance that made rather heavy weather of the winsome ‘Prélude’ and animated ‘Rigaudon’, though the ‘Forlane’ was not lacking in deadpan humour or the ‘Menuet’ in wistful pathos. Katia and Marielle Labèque then played Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos – a work whose intermingling of Messager, Messiaen and Mozart can be highly infectious, but here sounded rather earthbound: maybe the Labeque sisters have played it a little too often? Not that their pianistic chemistry was lacking in the encores –a raunchy arrangement of the ‘Jet Song’ from West Side Story and a lively Polka by Adolfo Berio (father of Luciano). After the interval, Franck’s Symphony in D minor – which, as with the previous evening’s Mahler, evinced little in terms of a distinctive new angle but was notable for the success with which Bychkov reconciled its competing French and German facets. Most importantly, the cyclical element which operates across the three movements was audibly in evidence, even if the expressive panache of the finale was overly reined-in. A fine performance nonetheless, Bychkov rewarding the warm reception with a vivid if not overly theatrical account of the Overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino.

Mariss Jansons. Photograph: © Astrid Ackermann

The morning of Sunday 22nd saw the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons in what might be deemed a ‘deluxe coffee concert’ that opened with Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody – as enviably well played as expected, yet with a lack of spontaneity that affected the insouciant woodwind solos at the beginning as much as the heady bacchanale near the close. Lisa Batiashvili then gave an account of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto that touched on all the requisite bases of tenderness, incisiveness and longing in what seemed a near-perfect reading – not least for its highlighting Jansons’s abilities as accompanist. Batiashvili delivered a lively encore in the guise of Oduri, a dance-like miniature by her fellow Georgian Alexei Machavariani whose centenary fell earlier this month. After the interval, Jansons presided over a makeshift yet plausible selection from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet –‘Montagues and Capulets’ being followed by ‘Juliet as Young Girl’, ‘Masques’ and finally ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’ – before the advertised programme came to an end with the 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, less often heard now that the complete ballet is back in favour but with most of the highpoints and none of the longueurs. Consummate if again over-rehearsed playing by the Royal Concertgebouw, as was true of Brahms’s First Hungarian Dance – a favourite Jansons ‘lollipop’ served up as the extra.

Monday the 23rd brought the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal conductor Sakari Oramo for the first of two concerts notable for their imaginative programming. For all that it begins in the region of Ligeti and ends in that of Sibelius, Anders Hillborg’s Exquisite Corpse is a notably effective demonstration of orchestral prowess and was given a suitably charismatic rendering. Stephen Hough was the soloist in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto – a work in which he is often at his best though here sounded a touch restless and unfocussed, at least in a first movement whose imposing span lacked momentum in its later stages. If not ideally inward, the Adagio did not lack expressive poise and then the finale was given with the requisite drive, even if Hough seemed to lose concentration in the surging passage prior to the coda. His eloquent reading of Schumann’s ‘Träumerei’ (from Kinderszenen) lacked nothing in finesse. A pity the audience thinned out before Nielsen’s Second Symphony, but those remaining responded enthusiastically to Oramo’s performance – whether in the high drama of its ‘Choleric’ opening movement, wry humour of its ‘Phlegmatic’ intermezzo, expressive depth of its ‘Melancholic’ slow movement, or high-jinx of its ‘Sanguine’ finale. Oramo responded with Alfvén’s ‘Dance of the Shepherdess’ (from the ballet The Mountain King), whose false ending caught the audience appropriately unaware.

Tuesday the 24th saw the second of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s concerts, opening with a performance of Enescu’s Second Orchestral Suite such as vividly underlined its bridging of the aesthetic divide between late-Romanticism and the neo-Classicism of an incipient era. The RSPO responded with alacrity, not least in an account of the final ‘Bourrée’ that drew together the work’s many thematic threads with irresistible verve. Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is a characteristic neoclassical work from between the wars, and though Julian Rachlin’s response often seemed too detached, his incisive articulation in the opening ‘Toccata’ and closing ‘Capriccio’ threw his engaging repartee with the orchestra into incisive focus. A charged account of Ysaÿe’s Sonata-Ballade (dedicated to Enescu) drew a suitably virtuosic response from this often impersonal violinist. After the interval came Sibelius’s First Symphony – a work Oramo has given with orchestras in Birmingham, Helsinki and Vienna (among others), but this reading took his interpretation onto another level: most clearly in a finale that banished thoughts of the movement’s al fresco construction in favour of a formal follow-through as cohesive as it was inevitable. With the orchestra responding in kind, this was a further high-spot of the festival and one to which the audience’s response was immediate and prolonged. Valse triste provided a brief though thoughtful encore.

Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Palace

The likely highlight of the festival promised to be a complete concert performance of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen – conducted by Marek Janowski, whose recordings of all the main Wagner stage-works have been a central feature of this year’s bicentennial activity. Ring cycles have hardly been infrequent these past few months – Daniel Barenboim presided over one at this year’s Proms, though anyone who feels this over-praised Wagnerian’s approach as overly congested in texture and lacking in rhythmic definition is sure to find Janowski the perfect alternative. Joining him and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra was an array of international and Romanian singers – resulting in a cast that, if lacking the ultimate in consistency, had few weak links and no outright failings. ‘Stage action’ was limited to a handful of gestures indicating the demise of the character in question, while the performances were sung in German with Romanian surtitles – yet the opportunity simply to listen to the sung roles as a vocal line within the orchestral texture was not to be ignored.

Egils Silins

Das Rheingold (Sunday the 15th) featured Egils Silins as an imposing though never overbearing Wotan, along with Elisabeth Kulman as an unusually sympathetic Fricka and Ştefan Ignata a tellingly cynical and caustic Albrecht. Günther Groissböck summoned a degree of vulnerability for Fasolt, with Sorin Coliban sounding the more ruthless as Fafner. Christian Elsner camped up Loge with audible relish, while Arnold Bezuyen was suitably wheedling as Mime. Janowski favoured swift though never inflexible tempos, drawing the requisite intensity from the interludes depicting the descent into then ascent from Nibelheim, while the entry into Valhalla evinced a sense of overreaching triumph shot-through with its own demise.

Die Walküre (Monday the 16th) opened with Torsten Kerl ideally cast as an impetuous and unfazed Siegmund, and Melanie Diener a warmly sympathetic Sieglinde, with Groissböck the sullen yet realistic Hunding. Silins was wholly out-faced by Kulman in their fateful Act Two encounter, while Petra Lang was suitably uninhibited as Brünnhilde – her confrontation with Silins in Act Three bringing a frisson of emotion appropriate to this climactic stage of the cycle. Janowski paced the difficult Act Two superbly, allowing expressive room for its intricate succession of character exchanges without the music ever becoming sluggish, while the shorter outer acts were each geared towards a culmination of palpable expressive force.

Siegfried (Thursday the 19th) found Stefan Vinke an ardent if underpowered Siegfried, easily outshone by Bezuyen in their scabrous Act One exchanges. Silins was arrogant then fatalistic as the Wanderer, with Daniela Denschlag bringing dark-hued authority to Erda and Ileana Tonca appealingly elegant as the Wood-bird. As Brünnhilde, Catherine Foster managed the transition from wonder to ecstasy in Act Three with evident accomplishment. While even Janowski could not prevent the dogged Act One outstaying its welcome, his underlining the trajectory from darkness to light in Act Two was vividly executed, while such passages as the Prelude to and central interlude of Act Three found the Berlin Radio SO at its sonorous best.

Götterdämmerung (Sunday the 22nd) was fairly dominated by Eric Halfvarson’s formidable Hagen, a study in psychosis as disturbing as it was engrossing. Vinke came more fully into his own, while Lang resumed her magnetic assumption of Brünnhilde. Valentin Vasiliu was unduly circumspect as Gunther, but Alexandra Reinprecht was wholly empathetic as the hapless Gutrune. Martin Winkler was a suitably vengeful Alberich, while Kulman returned as an earnestly imploring Waltraute. The George Enescu Philharmonic Chorus gave its collective all as the subservient Gibichungs, while Janowski held the vast span of Act One together with ease, and made the ‘Immolation Scene’ the all-round culmination it should be.

In an era when The Ring is prone either to drearily literal or needlessly directorial productions, a concert presentation such as this was not only an admirable corrective but also an ideal means of experiencing the cycle as an inclusive and evolving totality. Balance between voices and orchestra was excellent throughout – the former rarely, if ever, having to struggle to be heard, and the latter responding to Janowski’s precise and undemonstrative direction with unanimity and unflagging commitment: the cello section, in particular, must be among the best in Europe at present, while the brass summoned all the necessary force without ever sounding brazen, let alone coarse (the individual stage entries for those musicians taking on the horn calls of Siegfried and Hagen was an effective ploy that the players in question savoured to the full). In short, a Ring cycle which, though it may have lacked the ultimate in emotional depth or in psychological insight, made as strong a case for the continuing relevance of this music as could be imagined.

Oedipe at the National Opera

Enescu's Oedipe at Bucharest's National Opera

Thursday the 26th saw a culmination of the Enescu component in all respects with a staging at Bucharest’s 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 – the composer’s only opera and 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 his later orchestral music) took just over a decade, and the premiere, in Paris, was not until 1936. Well received then and at subsequent performances, it has never established itself in the operatic repertoire: doubtless its considerable (though far from unreasonable) vocal and orchestral demands, allied to its being an essentially inward and humanistic drama, has militated against its wider acceptance, yet as an inclusive synthesis of Enescu’s technical and expressive concerns it has no equal.

This production, however, suffered from too many flaws both in staging and execution to do anything like justice to the musical content, and thus failed to vindicate this opera as one which is relevant to the contemporary stage. Among the performers, Stefan Ignat was a brave and fearless Oedipus – as much ‘in-character’ as the 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, though Vicenţiu Ţăranu might have tempered the ruthlessness of Creon with greater vulnerability. Oana Andra made the most of Jocasta’s increasingly desperate entreaties, with Simona Neagu a touching Antigonae and Andrada Ioana Roşu an arresting though not overly distinctive Sphinx. Adrian Morar secured a decent response from his choral and orchestral forces – albeit not without its rough edges, and with the latter struggling in passages that would have gained from more rehearsal – while giving notice of no mean theatrical sensibility.

The staging by Anda Tābăcaru-Hogea, with monumental sets by Viorica Petrovici and visceral choreography by Răzvan Mazilu, enhanced without overwhelming the music. A pity, though, that technical irregularities dogged the close of Act One and the beginning of Act Two – to the extent that the latter ground to a halt after five minutes, the stage in almost total darkness, and had to be restarted. And were two intervals really necessary? This is a four-act opera which needs to be experienced as two equal halves – ensuring that a further 20-minute interval after Act Three undermined the theatrical and also musical contrast with its successor, as well as prolonging the evening such that the auditorium had thinned out noticeably by the time of the final Act. These considerations must not, however, lead to the withdrawal of the opera, (as has happened in recent memory), as it forms an integral part of a festival which would be much the poorer for its absence. Even allowing for these reservations, the power and the pathos, indeed the greatness, of Oedipe was not to be denied.

EBienale – Second Edition

Aurel Tar, Another Quick Response. Photograph: Corina Zorzor

Although this festival is primarily concerned with music and music-theatre, the EBienale ensured that a burgeoning arts-scene in Bucharest was afforded its vital presence. Two years ago this was limited to 80 artworks by 12 artists exhibiting in the hall of the Palace. The second edition, however, expanded to include six art galleries as well as installations in the foyer, in front of the Palace, and inside the Athenaeum. Credit for this again goes to Ilina Schileru, who assembled a diverse range of artefacts that made full as well as imaginative use of the spaces available (and with, it might be noted, little in the way of external funding) to ensure that this EBienale was not merely an adjunct to but an integral part of the festival.

Several of the exhibits had a directly musical purpose whether in terms of conception or execution. Among these, Traian Marcu’s Orfeu O featured a panoply of glass bottles and metallic plates which, struck by appropriate levers, produced a sound akin to that of the hammered anvils in Wagner’s Ring operas – while Schileru’s Muse comprised a rotating plinth on which three female torsos represented the commercial degradation of the Muses embodied over centuries of musico-dramatic works from Peri to Stravinsky. Conversely, Aurel Tar’s Another Quick Response provided a framed perspective on the Athenaeum as maybe embodying a circumscribed culture, while Liviu Ungureanu’s Fear-less occupied the centre of that building’s foyer with its painted glass exterior and illuminated interior such as brought to mind the expressionist ambiguity found in Max Ernst’s dreamscapes. At the nearby Galateca gallery was the most ambitious of these constructs: Come To Crash was Norwegian artist Timon Botez’s third large-scale orchestral installation, one (to quote the programme) ‘‘based on the idea that objects, through their shape and focus, have an inherent sound’’. The outcome was a room-length assemblage of loudspeakers and computer hardware that took on the guise of a vast sound-disseminating machine; one whose ‘voice’ was provided by the extracts from pioneering electronic works that permeated the surrounding ambience.

It was a pity, perhaps, that this along with all the other installations were only on display for the duration of the festival – their dismantling being underway even before the end of the allotted four weeks. On the other hand, such a temporary arrangement at least ensured that the artworks could not lose their relevance and one hopes it will be possible for the best of these to be shown elsewhere in Bucharest; and, for that matter, elsewhere in Romania and at galleries and exhibitions abroad. Two things are certain: first, that Bucharest now has a roster of artists and galleries to reckon with; second, that Ilina Schileru has her work cut out to equal, let alone surpass, the overall range and impact of exhibits at this second EBienale.


Taken as a whole, the scope and substance of the present festival could hardly be gainsaid – though a couple of criticisms might be worth making. Firstly, the sheer number of events is arguably self-defeating: does anyone really want to attend three or even four full-length concerts or recitals per day? Not that there is a requirement for doing so, yet the number of people who could be seen hurrying between the Athenaeum and the Palace, or vice versa, on most evenings does suggest that the late afternoon, main evening and late-evening performances could have been spaced out more effectively to rule out logistical considerations taking precedence over musical ones. Such overkill is surely to be avoided if at all possible.

Secondly (and in the knowledge that this may be ‘pie in the sky’ given the current financial climate), it would be worth the Bucharest authorities giving serious consideration to building a new and purpose-built concert hall – whether or not as part of a larger arts complex. Such projects have been to the benefit of numerous British cities (witness Symphony Hall in Birmingham or Bridgewater Hall in Manchester) in attracting the cream of European orchestras, while such a venue could also help in developing the quality of Bucharest’s own orchestras over in the medium to long term. This is a city awash with first-rate musicians, so why not make an investment which would be to the benefit of this and future generations?

All of which is not to decry the achievements of those who make the George Enescu Festival the all-encompassing and immensely worthwhile project it is. Whether in bringing together a host of the finest orchestras and musicians, or in raising the profile of one of the finest twentieth-century composers, its role in European culture is invaluable.

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