BBC Legends – Constantin Silvestri

0 of 5 stars

Beckus the Dandipratt – Comedy Overture, Op.5
Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes, Op.33a
Jeux – poème dansé
Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op.40
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Romanian Rhapsody No.1, Op.11/1
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.17 (Little Russian)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Constantin Silvestri

Recorded between 1963 and 1968 in the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth and the Royal Festival Hall, London

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: August 2006
BBCL 4182-2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 38 minutes



A mouth-watering collection even to read! And the listing not only swells Silvestri’s discography but does so with music of substance – only the Enescu was present there before this BBC Legends release – as well as being an interesting cross-section of repertoire.

Constantin Silvestri (1913-1969), born and trained in Bucharest, was something of a prodigy (he had played the piano in public at the age of 10). His conducting debut, in 1930, was a success, and he devoted himself to this art through opera productions and symphony concerts in his place of birth. (Silvestri was also a composer.) International engagements did not occur until the mid-1950s (this was a time when Eastern countries restricted the travel of their citizens). Such high-profile and well-received engagements in the West forced Silvestri to abandon his country and he settled in Paris. From there he became a prolific recording artist (an activity already started in Romania) and a guest with some of the most prestigious orchestras. Reviews from London and Chicago reported Silvestri’s conducting with such descriptions as: “splendidly disciplined, subtly coloured, poetic, intensity, concentrated drama…”

So, in 1961, how did Silvestri, noted for his “draconian methods” end up in ‘provincial’ Bournemouth as Principal Conductor? Raymond Carpenter (a member of the “young and inexperienced” Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra between 1948 and 1987 and Principal Clarinet from 1954) recalls in his booklet note that Silvestri would have been attracted by a fine concert hall (Winter Gardens), a luxury flat very near, and a five-star French restaurant. He could also spend time indulging his “one passionate hobby”, fishing! It wasn’t that simple, though. Rehearsal venues were not good and it was a crowded concert schedule mixing local and foreign travel. Nevertheless, Silvestri “plunged into his task with an energy and optimism that amazed the musicians”. The standard and stature of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was steadily to rise.

Silvestri’s memory was “infallible” and he set the very highest standards. He was as lavish with praise as he was searing with criticism. If his English wasn’t the best (it seems that during a rehearsal he could move into other languages with ease), he possessed a good sense of humour and was approachable and, to quote another BSO musician, “you had to watch him like a hawk!”

These invaluable recordings, alas in mono (except the Malcolm Arnold), capture the Bournemouth/Silvestri relationship on the wing – either in concerts or in live BBC broadcasts without an audience. Silvestri’s painstaking preparation and his emotional, even volatile identification with the music is vividly captured in recordings that, while somewhat limited, are no barrier to full appreciation of some electrifying and soulful music-making; Paul Baily’s transfers are very expert, ones that put the musical tones before an expertise with gadgetry.

The first CD is mostly devoted to Elgar, a composer that Silvestri was no stranger to – he made a notable Bournemouth recording of In the South for EMI (alongside Vaughan Williams) – and it seems that commercial ventures with both symphonies were planned. He was also “deeply affected” by “The Dream of Gerontius”.

Cockaigne (recorded in 1966) is quite deliberately paced and less picturesque than in some other renditions; exuberant and reflective in equal measure and with a fine sense of style and belief, Silvestri, with some interesting insights, finds a darker seam to this work beyond its assumed ‘picture postcard’ quality. The symphony (1968) is given a large-scale account that is deep and hard-won, more moulded and than can be the case and quite personal, Silvestri peering beneath the notes and recognising the music’s European lineage and Elgar’s individuality. It’s an expansive account rich in incident and with a power and sensitivity that sustains the whole. Often Silvestri will linger on a phrase or single out a passage, often to moving effect – although, conversely, the sublime Adagio is quite flowing if no less ruminative and deeply felt – and there is an integrity that is fully inside the music. In fact this is a remarkable and revelatory performance (one somewhat unrelieved dynamically, but that must be due to the recording’s source). What a tragedy Silvestri didn’t live to conduct Elgar’s Second Symphony or, indeed, ‘Gerontius’.

Of the ‘shorter’ works, Malcolm Arnold’s brilliant Comedy Overture (1963, the earliest taping here yet the only one in stereo!) – and which ends the ‘mostly Elgar’ first CD – receives a suitably virtuoso rendition, vivid, pin-point and confident in terms of the orchestra’s response; dynamic in every sense and fully revealing the panoply of this thoroughly engaging music. Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1 (from the Royal Festival Hall in 1966) is also striking, the Bournemouth Symphony transformed into a troupe of Romanian folk musicians, Silvestri (not surprisingly) alive to every indigenous facet. Whether, as Raymond Carpenter claims, this live account outstrips Silvestri’s Vienna Philharmonic recording for EMI is debatable; but Silvestri certainly waves a magic baton – every I is dotted and every T is crossed, but the end result is terrifically freewheeling, the ink seemingly still wet on Enescu’s manuscript. Of the Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes” (another 1966 concert, and with a notably bronchial audience) the opening ‘Dawn’ carries the right amount of claustrophobic and rough-hewn intensity. ‘Sunday Morning’ is decidedly sprightly but also well pointed, the tricky rhythms negotiated with aplomb, the welling up of emotion palpably realised and the bell at the close no mere colour but the sounding of an alarm. ‘Moonlight’ is grey and shadowy, no respite for Grimes’s torments, yet ‘Storm’ is not especially convincing being rather muted (partly the sound) and spurting back and forth with a wildness that can be perceived as tempest-related but which rather breaks Britten’s carefully conceived musical continuum. Jeux (1965) doesn’t quite add up either. There isn’t the requisite subtlety, and although detail is revealed and intertwined with skill – the BSO responding appreciably to the myriad demands that this music poses – the web of fantasy that is Jeux, elusive and allusive, isn’t quite achieved. Phrasal and tempo fluctuations are mannered rather than fluid. Furthermore, some dynamics seem too loud and rather edgy (as recorded, and this is the least good sound of the set, albeit Baily has done another excellent ‘restoration’); it may be that Debussy would have approved of Silvestri debunking the impressionist nature of his music (the composer hated the term). But the corker comes at the very close, Silvestri jacking-up the final chord to a rude fortissimo that crassly and ludicrously destroys what has gone before. “It was only a dream”, the conductor might have retorted; if so, he may have a point, but artistic licence here overrules fidelity to Debussy’s fastidious score.

Finally (if actually first on CD 2) an absolute winner – a marvellous account of Tchaikovsky’s adorable Second Symphony (1966), which makes use of folk-tunes from the Ukraine (Little Russia). Silvestri doesn’t force his hand here, allowing the opening Andante to be an almost-improvised introduction, one tellingly dovetailed to the Allegro vivo which enjoys a light and shade (and superb double bass articulation) that is delightful, rather balletic and, also, a rhetorical grandeur that is entirely apt. The march-like Andantino also responds to Silvestri’s light hand, and the scherzo is a whirlwind in terms of tempo but with no compromise to clarity or unanimity. The finale, without the niggling cuts that some conductors have imposed, has trenchancy, incision and affection in spades, a patience that builds to climaxes with certainty and conviction.

Reservations aside, and these are few, this is a glorious set, one that nicely complements the many commercial recordings that Silvestri left us (of which some, in my opinion, are less than ‘great’); maybe, under concert or ‘live-studio’ conditions, Silvestri’s art was unencumbered by the ‘red light’ and the need for re-takes. If there’s more material of this quality held in the BSO’s own archives, from where all of this release hails save the Arnold (the sole BBC-retained item), then its release is keenly anticipated.

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