BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania has a long tradition of defying disasters that history has served, so it would certainly not allow the pandemic to derail the George Enescu International Festival, dedicated to its first native musical son, who is over on Sunday. What was at stake was not only the 25th edition of this country’s biggest cultural event, but also the renewal of a global artistic exchange that this still marginalized part of Europe considers essential to its development.
Stubbornly underestimated elsewhere, Enescu (1881-1955), whose “Œdipe” takes place at the Paris Opera until October 14, remains an omnipresent presence here, even beyond the realm of music. His face is on Romania’s five lei note; Bucharest’s largest orchestra is the George Enescu Philharmonic. A sumptuous Palace of Fine Arts along the legendary Calea Victoriei that served briefly as his home is now the Enescu Museum and the headquarters of the Union of Romanian Composers.
Credited with giving Romanians a national voice inspired by the country’s rich folk music, Enescu also had a thoroughly cosmopolitan outlook that embraced multiple stylistic shifts. He embodied the ideal of the complete musician in his roles as composer, virtuoso violinist and pianist, conductor, teacher and generous mentor for young artists. Yehudi Menuhin hailed him as “the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever known”.
Even as the lingering pandemic has dashed hopes for a return to more normal life, an astonishing roster of 32 orchestras from 14 countries have managed to make it here for the festival, among the world’s premier classical music events. . Scheduled every two years, it takes place alternately with the George Enescu International Competition for young performers and composers. The festival began in 1958, three years after Enescu’s death, and was initially presented every three years. But an attitude of the Communist government that could best be described as ambivalent became downright hostile and self-destructive under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Much of it had to be rebuilt following the 1989 revolution.
The festival lasts four weeks, with several events each day. A major focus is the programming of top international ensembles, many of which are invited to include a work by Enescu in their touring repertoire. The ticketed events take place in four concert halls in central Bucharest, but seven other cities in Romania also present concerts under the auspices of the festival.
Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who ends his term as artistic director of the festival with this edition, underlined in an interview the strategic importance of having guest orchestras engaged in a work by Enescu. Many of them will continue to perform them when they return home, he said, “further widening the appreciation and visibility” of the Romanian composer.
“I have been particularly proud to have brought Enescu’s work to London, Berlin and Moscow with my own orchestras over the years,” he added, including a concert version of “Oedipe”, Enescu’s only opera..
However, attracting audiences to Bucharest continues to vex festival organizers. “Everyone has a false image of Romania,” said Mihai Constantinescu, the event’s executive director since 1991, when asked why the mammoth enterprise was not on many’s radar foreigner.
“But the moment they get here,” Constantinescu added, “they are amazed.”
Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, a longtime regular, testifies to the intensity of the public appreciation: “They remain very calm, very receptive. You feel the thirst for music and interaction, and that’s something that’s vital for anyone stepping onto the stage.
When Kavakos joined the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra for the orchestra’s first of two concerts under the direction of Valery Gergiev, he seemed to marvel at the sheer sonic pleasure of reproducing Tchaikovsky’s continually repeated melodies in the Violin Concerto of the purest and least forgiving way possible. The wildly unpredictable Gergiev was more engaged than in recent memory, presiding over a beautifully crafted version of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, an unusual and memorable pairing with Tchaikovsky’s concerto.
Enescu, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja said, “is a universe for himself”, adding: “I find it remarkable how he discovered his language”. She is another regular at the festival and presented at this edition the version orchestrated by Valentin Doni of one of Enescu’s most fascinating and stimulating chamber pieces, the Sonata n° 3 for violin and piano (“In the Character Popular Romanian”).
Despite its lively stage presence and the valiant efforts of Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the concept felt doomed from the outset by the impossibility of balancing the forces; the orchestrated piano part kept Kopatchinskaja distracted. But one experiment that didn’t work underscored the festival’s openness to exploring new facets of Enescu and his work.
It is a sign of the respect the festival receives in musical circles that Gardner has chosen it as the occasion for his first public performance since officially taking the reins of the London Philharmonic. Both of their programs were part of a deliberate focus on UK orchestras in this edition of the festival as a post-Brexit statement of musical solidarity. Six of the seven London-based ensembles originally invited were able to bypass strict quarantine protocols and perform in Bucharest.
“It’s a nice requirement that the festival has for us to include a piece by Enescu,” Gardner said. The program framed the orchestration of the sonata with the ritual dances of Michael Tippett from “The Midsummer Marriage” and a colorful and high-contrast recitation of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”. The following evening, Gardner proved to be a natural storyteller with a thrilling and theatrical rendition of Sibelius’ Second Symphony.
Although Enescu was revered here, aspects of his legacy continue to be re-evaluated or even rediscovered by Romanians. Pianist Angela Draghicescu attracted media interest across the country for performing at the festival the Piano Trio No. 1, from 1897, which she performed with colleagues from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Draghicescu gave the trio its late American premiere in 2019 and has become an authority on the enigmatic history of this early, Brahms-infatuated score, written by Enescu at the age of 16 and first discovered while he was was a student in Paris.
“He’s still unknown,” she says, “and only now, after the American premiere, has he begun to gain an international reputation.”
A surprising number of works also received their late Romanian premieres. One of these was Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 opera “Die Tote Stadt”, performed by the Enescu Philharmonic in a concert version imbued with loving detail by conductor Frédéric Chaslin. In the final moments of the opera, the central character recognizes the futility of his desire to stop time and loss. The radiant resolution of the score settled like a blessing in the vast space of the Sala Palatului, a former Romanian Communist Party congress hall whose exterior still bears the scars of bullets from the 1989 revolution.
Constantinescu guided the festival shortly after this traumatic transition, but, together with Jurowski, he announced his intention to leave after this 25th edition. The highly sought-after Romanian conductor Cristian Macelaru is supposed to succeed him. Or was it just a coincidence that towards the end of the festival the announcement came that Macelaru had agreed to record Enescu’s complete orchestral work with the Orchester de France for Deutsche Grammophon?