sat 19/10/2019

theartsdesk in Bucharest: Loving Enescu | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Bucharest: Loving Enescu

theartsdesk in Bucharest: Loving Enescu

A cultural weapon of the Cold War has matured into a magnet for world-class orchestras

Loud applause for the conductor and soloists after the National Radio Orchestra of Romania's Mahler 8Catalina Filip

Where in the world will you find the most glittering line-up of international orchestras? The Proms? Salzburg? Lucerne? Edinburgh? Bucharest, actually. The Enescu Festival, which began on 30 August, this year boasts appearances by the Concertgebouw, Vienna Philharmonic, Dresden Staatskapelle, Israel Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, St Petersburg Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra. And that’s leaving out the jewel in the crown, an appearance by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle.

The visit from the Berliners has taken 18 years of dogged negotiation. At a press conference before the concert, Sir Simon was vague about the reasons why it had taken so long. Some believe it took a visit by the orchestra’s arch-rivals, the Berlin Staatskapelle under Daniel Barenboim, to convince them. But Rattle (pictured below by Vlad Eftenie) did suggest it was the festival’s unwavering commitment to classical music in a constantly shifting political and financial environment that persuaded them to make space in their schedule. “The Enescu Festival has an incredible record in supporting and encouraging music whatever is going on in the world outside,” he said.

The festival could easily have been abandoned as a drain on scarce resources

The festival began life in 1958 as a weapon in the Cold War, its aim to show that Communism could “do” culture as well as the capitalist West. But it really took off after the fall of Communism and the violent overthrow of Romania’s notorious dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, in 1989. The new government saw the festival’s potential to project a positive image of Romania abroad after the horrors of Communism, and began to offer substantial funding to attract international musicians of the highest calibre. The festival’s frequency was increased from once every three years to once every other year, with the Enescu Competition for young musicians in the intervening years.

When the global financial crisis struck, the festival could easily have been abandoned as a drain on scarce resources, but the government stuck with it and this year stumped up about £4 million, with the other 30 per cent of the budget coming from sponsorship and ticket sales. This in a city where £1 will buy you a pint of beer or a ticket to the national art gallery.

Every concert is streamed live on the festival’s website, and most of the concerts are televised, whether live or recorded, something that particularly pleased Simon Rattle. “It’s important that access can be broadened in this way," he said, "when you realise how limited are the numbers that any hall can accommodate.”

The arrival of the Berlin orchestra created quite a stir in the city. The concert had long been sold out, and the Romanians’ slightly informal approach to concert protocol meant there were more people in the hall than there were seats available, which left many standing or sitting in the aisles.

The programme was a surprisingly intense and serious one, consisting of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the work that brought the young composer to international attention, and Shostakovich’s turbulent Fourth Symphony. The performances were, as you might expect, immaculately prepared, with the orchestra demonstrating its ability to combine delicacy with power in Shostakovich’s pungent orchestral writing.

It is a little unfair to compare the Berlin Philharmonic’s virtuosity with the homegrown talent on display the previous evening, when the National Radio Orchestra and three Romanian choirs performed Mahler’s Eighth Symphony under Cornelius Meister. In fact it was a perfectly decent performance, just a little lacking in variety and dynamic range. This most bombastic of symphonies needs to be loud, but it doesn’t have to be this loud all the time. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any louder, it entered a whole new dimension of loudness.

The acoustics in the hall probably didn’t help. The 3,000-seat Sala Palatului (pictured above), where the festival’s major events are held, was designed during the Communist era for international conferences rather than orchestral concerts. There is a long-cherished plan to build a new hall, a plan forcefully supported during this festival by the Israel Philharmonic’s conductor, Zubin Mehta, but no one knows if, when, or even where this will happen.

A couple of hundred yards from the Sala Palatului is one of the other main festival venues, the Athenaeum, used for recitals and chamber music, and it could hardly be more different. Designed by a French architect in the 19th century, it is ornately and elegantly neoclassical.

The contrast is par for the course in Bucharest. Even more than most cities, it displays its history in its architecture. The most obvious example is the gigantic Palace of the Parliament, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, begun under Ceauşescu and still not finished. But everywhere grand palaces stand next to crumbling Communist-era tenements, with maybe an Orthodox church or a shiny new hotel nestling in between. There are even a couple of startling cases where glass and steel buildings seem to have 19th-century facades pasted on to them.

Having survived the global crash, how does the festival see its future? Executive director Mihai Constantinescu promises a stellar line-up for the 2017 festival, particularly among the soloists. And he will continue to urge visiting artists to perform works by the 20th-century composer who gives the festival its name, George Enescu (pictured above).

Enescu is still little-known outside Romania. This is partly, says Constantinescu, because in the past he was not promoted in the way that Hungary promoted Bartók and Russia promoted Shostakovich. The festival aims to change that. This year, every visiting orchestra except the Berlin Philharmonic is performing a work by Enescu. Rattle apologised for his orchestra’s omission, but expressed his admiration for the composer’s music, particularly the Romanian Rhapsodies and the opera Oedipe, which will be performed at Covent Garden next year. “I’ve long believed that Oedipe is one of the unacknowledged masterpieces of the operatic repertoire,” he said.

Constantinescu acknowledges that recognition for Enescu is slow in coming, even in Romania. “His music has to become a bible in Romania, but it is not yet a bible.” That will change, he says. International orchestras, “particularly the British ones”, are learning Enescu’s language, and are increasingly happy with the results. “Now they say: ‘OK, it’s lovely music, we love it, finally we understand it.’”

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