Written by: Richard Whitehouse
George Enescu International Music Festival 2017
Saturday, September 2-Sunday, September 24, 2017
The twenty-first Edition of the George Enescu International Festival, the first to take place with Zubin Mehta as its Honorary President and Vladimir Jurowski as its Artistic Director, inevitably packed a great deal into its twenty-two days as concerns variety of both music and artists. As in all previous Editions, the music of George Enescu was accorded due prominence with thirty-six works played, two for the first time here. The outcome was a blueprint.
Morning Concerts at the Auditorium Hall
Accessed via a side entrance of the National Museum of Art, the Auditorium Hall is an ideal setting for the mid-morning concerts held on weekends during the Festival; similar in most respects to the “Coffee Concerts” at London’s Wigmore Hall – albeit without refreshments.
Saturday the 16th brought a return visit by Christopher Warren-Green and the London Chamber Orchestra, whose wind complement fairly shone in Enescu’s appealing Dixtuor – its three, Classically-formed movements combining Mozartean poise with Wagnerian sensuality to enticing effect. Mozart was represented by his Serenade in E-flat (K375) – ostensibly less imposing or profound than those B-flat and C-minor works either side, though lacking none of the expressive deftness that makes these three Serenades highpoints of his Salzburg years.
Coming after Dixtuor and K375 were string pieces from contemporary British composers. Tim Benjamin’s Yes, I remember offered a thoughtful take on the English string tradition, as did Graham Fitkin’s Servant in its more capricious and rhythmic way. Winds and strings finally combined for Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, though the venue’s modest acoustic was hardly suited to the sonorous weight of this music (and Warren-Green’s direction proved pragmatic rather than insightful.
The indisposition of Nelson Goerner necessitated a substantial overhaul to the programme on Sunday the 17th. No mere stand-in, however, Florent Boffard gave a melting rendition of Enescu’s Pièce sur le nom de Fauré; here emerging as an ethereal interlude between the robust humour and gruff elegance of Gaspar Cassadó’s Solo Cello Suite, at its most engaging in the bewitching ‘Sardana’, and the unbridled melodic richness of Fauré’s First Violin Sonata – a seminal influence (even more than that of César Franck’s Sonata) on the young Enescu.
Cellist Gary Hoffman and violinist Nicolas Dautricourt were heard to advantage during their respective works. After the interval, the latter tackled the sultry virtuosity of Ysaÿe’s Third Sonata (‘Ballade’) with aplomb, making light of its frequent yet always musical recourse to extended-playing techniques. The three musicians combined for Ravel’s Piano Trio, a taut while never inflexible reading was at its best (as, indeed, is this piece) in the halting irony of the ‘Phantoum’ second movement and stark eloquence of the ensuing ‘Passacaglia’.
The most memorable of these mid-morning concerts came on Sunday the 24th, when members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra gave immaculate yet also personable renditions of Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles and Kurtág’s more disruptive Wind Quintet. Between these, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and pianist Polina Leschenko took part in Ligeti’s quixotic and finally tragic Horn Trio; the former then taking the stage for some of Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages (plus one from his Kafka Fragments) – singing, playing and speaking as only she knows how.
Indeed, for all her seeming eccentricity, Kopatchinskaja has few rivals when it comes to the communication of music which matters to her. Her control of expressive tension over Webern’s aphoristic yet spellbinding Four Pieces was exemplary, while her rendition of Enescu’s Third Violin Sonata dans le caractère populaire roumain evinced a technical mastery and a musical insight that reinforced just why this singular composition ranks among the greatest works of its kind.
Afternoon Concerts at the Romanian Athenaeum
The Romanian Athenaeum, still the finest concert venue in Bucharest after nearly 130 years, has proportionally the largest number of events. Thankfully, the scheduling now means that those attending these concerts no longer need rush straight to those at the Palace.
Wednesday 13th September saw a return visit from Renaud Capuçon, opening with the warm emotion of Dvořák’s Four Romantic Pieces that were elegantly played and with not a whiff of sentiment. Rarely heard in public, Enescu’s First Violin Sonata was overshadowed by its astounding successor, though the sixteen-year-old composer was no novice and the present work impresses through its technical finesse, resolute dialogue in the vigorous (not too Brahmsian) outer movements and, in its central Quasi adagio, a sustained and atmospheric introspection.
After the interval, Grieg’s Third Sonata proved the arguable highlight of this recital. Easy to underestimate, its fluid and restrained though never uneventful interplay between violin and piano served as reminder that several of its composer’s best works are in the chamber domain. Special praise for Jérôme Ducros, whose attentive and sensitive pianism was never merely an accompaniment; either here or in the evocative pungency of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances which, heard in Zoltán Székely’s idiomatic transcription, concluded the recital in fine fashion.
The Philharmonia Orchestra’s concert the following afternoon was devoted to Russian music. Michael Barenboim (son of Daniel) has attracted no mean attention in recent years, but his account of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto was a disappointment – not least in an oddly disengaged approach to the initial movement; its magical opening melody unaccountably prosaic. The lithe Scherzo was more successful, while the Finale yielded some attractively limpid playing, but there was little here to place Barenboim among the leading violinists of his generation.
Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia proved unstinting in support – then, after the interval, gave an account of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony as exuded gravitas in the lengthy initial Moderato and tensile energy in the ensuing Scherzo. The intermezzo-like Allegretto, though, was too matter-of-fact for its ambiguity fully to register, with the Finale’s incremental build-up too piecemeal for the coda to cap the movement (or the work) in suitably decisive fashion. This symphony is a staple of the repertoire and performances need to offer something more.
Returning the next day, the Philharmonia was directed by Cristian Mandeal in a much more engrossing concert. A true harbinger of neoclassicism, Enescu’s Second Orchestral Suite is one of his most immediately appealing works; this account had the measure of its vigorous contrapuntal interplay and, in its second and fifth movements, eloquent poise. After it, Boris Berezovsky faced the audience head-on in an incisive take on Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto – most memorable for his repeating the end of its latter two movements as encores.
Memorable for all the right reasons, Mandeal’s conducting of Sibelius’s Second Symphony was avowedly one in the grand manner. Grand but never overbearing or bombastic, whether in the sombre anguish of the slow movement or emergent heroism of a Finale that culminated in affirmative splendour. The Philharmonia sounded first-rate in so excellent an acoustic, not least its strings in what was an affecting account of ‘The Death of Mélisande’ from Sibelius’s incidental music for Maeterlinck’s drama, an elegiac rounding-off to an impressive concert.
Saturday the 16th brought a typically thoughtful programme from Jean-Guihen Queyras and Florent Boffard. They found not a little astringent humour in Poulenc’s Suite française, its sequence of dances after Claude Gervaise one of the most engaging instances of Poulenc’s essays. Enescu’s Second Cello Sonata is a more elusive proposition, but this account probed into its taciturn opening movement and wistful Andantino, while the fugitive Scherzo and the deceptively relaxed Finale were of a piece with this intriguing work overall.
Berg was roundly criticised for his foray into aphorism, but the Four Pieces for clarinet and piano evince a wide range of moods for all their brevity – Queyras and Boffard responding with sensitivity to the music in its (uncredited) transcription. Nor were the more understated contrasts of Brahms’s First Cello Sonata overlooked, with Queyras’s ruminative tone heard to advantage in its autumnal initial movement and one its composer’s most reticent intermezzos. Livelier though hardly extrovert, the Finale had an expressive focus tellingly in evidence.
Directing Les Siècles on Tuesday 19th, François-Xavier Roth began with Enescu’s Romanian Poem – the teenager’s Opus 1, whose evening-to-morning trajectory takes in some rapturous night-music and a lively conclusion whose climactic statement of the National Anthem caused not a little uncertainty within the audience. No such doubts attended Simone Lamsma’s electrifying account of Saint-Saëns’s Third Violin Concerto, its virtuosic outer movements complemented by the effortless grace of its central Andantino. On this showing, Lamsma’s future is assured.
Roth and his orchestra rediscovered Debussy’s Première Suite, a long-unknown piece from the early-1880s where the youthful composer flexes his creative muscles in the arresting harmony of ‘Fête’ and poetic grace of ‘Rêve’ (as realised by Philippe Manoury). Les Siècles responded with alacrity here and in Ravel’s La valse, a performance as alive to its ominous opening as to its tumultuous close. This latter quality was even more to the fore in the ‘Bacchanale’ from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, served up as an orgiastic encore.
Concerts by conductor-less Les Dissonances were highlights of the last Festival, and if its visit on Wednesday 20th seemed less sensational, it was still impressive. Enescu’s First Orchestral Suite is dominated by its mesmeric ‘Prélude à l’unisson’ yet, admirable as it was, this account was at its best in the glowing fervency of the following ‘Menuet lent’. Leader David Grimal then took centre-stage for a forthright reading of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, marred only by too headlong a tempo for the final Allegro – its ma non tanto marking hardly in evidence.
There was no such reservation about Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Once a stern test for even front-rank ensembles, it was faultlessly played by Les Dissonances – despite an intermittent sense that the Finale (in particular) was being rendered as a sequence of judiciously contrasted episodes rather than a tautly integrated unity. Elements of rhythmic inflexibility were few if just enough to denote the absence of a conductor, which was perhaps as well given that this ensemble often comes so near to obviating that profession altogether.
Alexei Volodin is a fine pianist in the Russian tradition, who seems to have been overtaken by showier talents. A perceptive take on Enescu’s Second Suite, by turns effervescent and pensive, got his recital on Thursday 21st off to a notable start. He continued with a clutch of miniatures: ‘Young Juliet’ then ‘Montagues and Capulets’ from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, heard in Rachmaninov’s version; and King Lear-inspired vehemence of a Medtner Tale, Opus 35/4.
Whatever else, it amply set the scene for Rachmaninov’s First Piano Sonata. Comparable in its scope to the composer’s Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto, this lengthy, Faust-inspired piece has found surprisingly few advocates – doubtless owing to its outsize pianism with its dense harmonies and virtuosic passagework. Volodin was wholly in control of these, as of the tender emotion in its central Lento with its poignant transformation before the Finale’s thunderous coda. A standing ovation was the only appropriate response.
Evening Concerts at the Grand Palace Hall
The evening concerts all took place at the Grand Palace Hall, whose clarity though not depth of acoustic (think of the Barbican Hall in London, albeit one twice the size) is far from ideal as concerns perspective – except when it comes to the overall scale of presentation.
Friday 15th September brought the second appearance of the Filarmonica della Scala, whose continued claim as the leading orchestra in Italy has been reinforced under its current music director Riccardo Chailly. A suave account of Enescu’s Second Romanian Rhapsody, lacking fervency whatever its outward eloquence, evinced an ensemble in the luxury class as was not equally suited to the inward intensity of Bartók’s Viola Concerto. Julian Rachlin confirmed his credentials as a violist of finesse if, in the lively Finale, occasionally inelegant phrasing.
After the interval, the Scala was more obviously on home ground with the first two works in Respighi’s Roman Triptych. Yet the pensive melancholy in the outer sections of Fontane di Roma was curiously lacking; while the more demonstrative manner of Pini di Roma, notably the climactic build-up in the ‘Appian Way’, arguably failed to reveal the grandeur behind the spectacle. The conundrum of Chailly as an adept technician yet limited interpreter remains for all that his encore of the Overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino gave the players their head.
This was reinforced the next evening, when Zubin Mehta presided over the first concert by the Israel Philharmonic (whose music director he has been for almost half a century). Khatia Buniatishvilli has been decried by some as a caricature of the young Martha Argerich, yet her take on Schumann’s Piano Concerto was appreciably different with its emphasis on extremes of tempo such that the initial movement struggled to cohere, though the pert Intermezzo and effervescent Finale found her frequently scintillating pianism being more gainfully employed.
The second half saw a consummate reading of Richard Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica, a work Mehta has long championed and whose indulgent ‘programme’ conceals a process of continuous variation on its main themes with the composer’s harmonic language at its most arresting and his contrapuntal writing at its most intensive. The Adagio’s ‘love scene’ affectingly mingled rapture and regret, then the lengthy fugal peroration was unerringly paced and exhilarating in import. Minor fallibilities aside, the IPO’s playing set the seal on a memorable interpretation.
The orchestra’s second concert on Sunday 17th was barely less impressive. Mehta secured a dedicated response in the haunting soundscape of Enescu’s unfinished tone poem Nuages d’automne sur les forêts, to the regrettable indifference of the audience, then Leonidas Kavakos summoned playing of insight if overt restraint in Brahms’s Violin Concerto – a performance at its best in the easefulness of the Adagio and leonine vigour of the Finale. The imposing first movement was just a little inert expressively, at least until the climactic arrival of the reprise.
Following the interval, another Mehta perennial in Schubert’s Ninth Symphony – pointedly ‘old school’ in its absence of repeats (save the Scherzo’s brief first part) and expansive rhetoric of the first movement’s coda; yet timeless in the poise of its introduction, ominous underpinning of the Andante’s troubled journeying and sheer impetus of the Finale’s unfolding towards its triumphal close. Ending the previous night with Johann Strauss II’s uproarious Thunder and Lightening Polka, Mehta now opted for his Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka – its grace and vigour consummately conveyed.
Tuesday 19th saw a second appearance by Orchestre National de France with Christoph Eschenbach. After their finely proportioned account of the Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, if lacking evocation, Truls Mørk was the soloist in a memorable reading of Enescu’s Symphonie concertante. A failure at its premiere, this ingenious three-movements-in-one conception is notable for the almost continuous arioso of a cello part which Mørk rendered with unforced eloquence and, during the more demonstrative closing section, a deftly propelled virtuosity.
A conductor who lacks nothing in technical focus, Eschenbach frequently delivers expert if unmemorable performances. There was little to fault in his take on Brahms’s First Symphony – notable for the tenderness of its Andante and lightness of touch in the ensuing intermezzo – but the portentousness of the opening movement’s introduction was never countered by the trenchancy of its Allegro, while the Finale began well (witness the burnished horn-playing in its ‘alpine’ chorale) before building towards a commanding if hardly electrifying peroration.
Thursday 21st brought the first concert from Rome’s Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and its music director Antonio Pappano. Less technically immaculate than the Milan ensemble, its warmer and more spontaneous playing was to the fore in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Beatrice Rana responded with resourceful pianism, yet her sometimes rushed passagework and uneven tone made the first movement less compelling than it might have been. The exquisitely phrased Andantino and driving Finale offered greater consistency.
Enescu’s Third Symphony has become a staple of recent Festivals, and Pappano rose to its all-round challenges with relish – notably in the taut and impetuousness opening Moderato, then a central Vivace whose simmering activity and thunderous climax amply evokes the wartime circumstances from which it emerged. The final Lento, though, lacked sufficient inwardness and rapture for its beatific conclusion fully to register – despite admirable singing from the Santa Cecilia’s chorus in what was an absorbing if, ultimately, less than revelatory reading.
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s second concert on Sunday 24th duly brought this Festival to its close. Daniele Gatti’s lithe account of the Overture to Weber’s Euryanthe – given with members of the Romanian National Youth Orchestra as part of the laudable “Side by Side” programme – was an ideal upbeat to Enescu’s Caprice roumain. Realised from a draft by Cornel Tăranu, this was rendered by violinist Liviu Prunaru with real appreciation of its ingenious fusion of folk-inflected melody and a formal freedom as looks forward to its composer’s full maturity.
Gatti’s first year as the RCO’s chief conductor has not met with unanimous praise, and there were times in Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony when his formal projection and control of tension audibly faltered. The initial Andante was a touch stolid and the Scherzo was less than ideally edgy, and without the ultimate terror being drawn from the climax of the Lento. The Finale, though, was almost ideal as it veered between elegance and irony on its way to a coda whose hysteria was only just held in check. As a likely statement of intent, it was highly impressive.
The highlight of these Palace concerts, though, had come on Wednesday 13th, when Festival stalwart Lawrence Foster conducted a concert performance of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. That the premise of an artist caught between social and creative action, in the midst of cultural upheaval, is as relevant today as it was eighty or indeed 380 years ago can hardly be gainsaid. Thiscomparatively rare opportunity to hear complete an opera as ranks with the finest of the past century was its own justification and the present account did not disappoint.
Lester Lynch, authoritative yet vulnerable in the title-role, led an impressive cast that featured Torsten Kerl as a troubled Cardinal Albrecht, Cosmin Ifrim as ruthless commander Sylvester, Norbert Ernst as rebellious peasant-leader Schwalb, Katerina Tretykovaas his loyal daughter Regina and Brigitte Pinter as Mathis’s soulmate Ursula. The Radio National Orchestra and Radio Academic Choir coped ably with the intricacy of Hindemith’s writing, while Carmen Lidia Vidu’s multimedia backdrop – incorporating English synopses of each tableau into its interplay of Mathis Grünewald’s artwork with abstract visuals – enhanced the music without distracting from it. The audience thinned out by the close, but this remained a vindication of Foster’s belief in a significant opera and also the Enescu Festival for having made it possible.
Late-Evening Concerts at the Romanian Athenaeum
Perhaps only in southern Europe would one encounter a capacity audience at an event starting at 10.30 p.m. and finishing early the next morning, but the By Midnight series is an integral part of the Enescu Festival in the scope of its programming and quality of its artists.
Thursday 14th brought together two leading Romanian musicians in violinist Remus Azoţei and pianist Alexandra Dariescu. The former launched proceedings with the ‘Chaconne’ from J. S. Bach’s D-minor Partita, less imposing than it often is but with a corresponding eloquence and poise. Such qualities were to the fore in Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata, notably in an opening movement whose lyrical contours were accorded full rein. Conversely, the Finale was dispatched with a nonchalance no-less characteristic of this composer in his early maturity.
Dariescu then took solo spot for an animated take on Beethoven’s Sixth Piano Sonata (Opus 10/2) – modest in dimensions yet with insouciance and, in the last movement, rhythmic propulsion. Both players did real justice to Enescu’s Second Violin Sonata, the teenager’s first masterpiece and a marvel of thematic integration offset by an overall restraint. Azoţei probed its musings accordingly, then he and Dariescu let their hair down in Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances – earthier than were Capuçon and Ducros though no less appealing.
Kirill Gerstein appeared the next evening for a wide-ranging programme that likewise began with Bach, here the Four Duets (BWV802-5) published in 1739. Sober but never stolid, these prepared well for Enescu’s First Piano Sonata. Fast becoming a part of the repertoire, it responded well to Gerstein’s subtle control of expressive tension in the opening movement and deft touch in the Messiaen pre-echoes of its central Presto, but the Finale might have gained from even greater emotional inwardness.
A change to the advertised listing then saw Gerstein take on the not inconsiderable challenges of Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli – here in its original four-movement incarnation, where the pianistic audacities are only intermittently tempered by encroaching wisdom. An ideal foil, indeed, for Brahms’s Second Piano Sonata – most Lisztian of his early pieces as its composer struggles to wrest convincing form out of his sometime recalcitrant ideas. Gerstein rendered it without undue inhibition, not least the fantasia-like Finale as it wends its way towards eventual repose.
Sunday 17th brought a late-evening concert to remember. Christian Ciucă directed Ensemble Instrumental de Paris in Mozart’s sacred music, beginning with the motet Exsultate, jubilate (K165) in which Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti was the nimble and, in those concluding alleluias, fearless soloist.
For all its unfinished state, the Mass in C-minor (K427) is Mozart’s greatest choral achievement and this performance showed why. Alongside the Parisian group, the National Chamber Choir ‘Madrigal Marin Constantin’ rendered the Baroque intricacy of its choral writing with alacrity – not least those blazing outer sections of the ‘Gloria’ and contrapuntal dexterity of the ‘Sanctus’. Khatouna Gadelia ably partnered Peretyatko-Mariotti for the winsome duet that is ‘Dominus Deus’, with Marius Vlad Budoiu providing a spirited contribution to ‘Quoniam tu solus’ and Adrian Sámpetrean incisive in the vocal quartet of ‘Benedictus qui venit’. Organist Simona Săndulescu gave a masterclass in continuo playing and Ciucă steered it faultlessly – the profound grace of ‘Et incarnates est’ being typical of what was an account to treasure.
On to Thursday 21st, and a welcome appearance by the Russian Chamber Philharmonic of St Petersburg and conductor Juri Gilbo. After the quiet elegance of Enescu’s Two Intermezzos, its string writing evocative of Fauré and Elgar, cellist Mischa Maisky tackled the rumination of Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne (Opus 19/4), heard in the composer’s own arrangement, as surely as the brooding depths of Kol Nidrei – Max Bruch’s newly popular Adagio on Hebrew melodies (Opus 47), whose glowing apotheosis brought with it an emotional frisson from soloist and orchestra.
The orchestra came into its own following the interval, with an alert and attentive account of Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony – at its best in an incisive opening Allegro (the exposition repeat observed) and wistful third movement. From here to Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme is no great step aesthetically and Maisky’s highly characterful playing was never at the expense of a ‘first among equals’ interplay informing this elegantly understated music, though the effervescent final variation assuredly brought the house down.
A diverse and engrossing range of music, then, as fairly typified this latest Enescu Festival overall. A great pity, even so, that many attendees saw fit to peruse their phones throughout the music-making, while the positioning of cameras – notably at the very centre of the Auditorium Hall – remains far too intrusive. Perhaps the Festival organisers could give such issues due consideration during the run-up to 2019, and so further enhance this event’s status.