Although the Enescu Festival has been held intermittently for half a century, it is now biennial and the 2019 edition has been its most ambitious yet, with nearly thirty orchestras and ensembles from around Europe visiting during its three week duration. The feast of concerts included plenty of Enescu’s music, of course, but covered much else besides, from baroque opera to the most challenging new music. The concerts are held for the most part in Bucharest’s three main concert halls, all a short walk apart: the lovely 1888 Athenaeum, the less lovely but spacious 1959 Grand Palace and the modern intimate space of Radio Romania. In between an open air big screen relays the events and provides a stage for local music students. The events begin at mid afternoon and continue until after midnight. So much is on offer that it makes sense for IFR to discuss the concerts thematically, rather than in isolation.
Executive Director: Mihai Constantinescu
Artistic Director: Vladimir Jurowski
Monday 2 September 2019
Grand Palace Hall
Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto
London Symphony Orchestra
Denis Matsuev Piano
Gianandrea Noseda Conductor
Tuesday 3 September 2019
Chopin First Piano Concerto
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Szymon Nerhring Piano
Lawrence Foster Conductor
Friday 6 September 2019
Grand Palace Hall
Ravel Piano Concerto in G
National Orchestra of France
Alexandra Dariescu Piano
Ion Marin Conductor
Sunday 8 September 2019
Grand Palace Hall
Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto, the Emperor
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Elisabeth Leonskaya Piano
Horia Andreescu Conductor
If ever there was a week to show up the differences between early nineteenth and early twentieth century piano concertos, this was it. Whereas in Beethoven and Chopin’s time piano and orchestra had a conversation, in Prokofiev’s and Rachmaninov’s it was a shouting match with occasional lulls to catch the breath and spin a melody, at least in the view of the performers playing in Bucharest.
Listening to, or rather being assaulted by, Prokofiev’s Second Concerto – as with many of his Sonatas – I often feel it is a pity he himself was such a spectacular pianist. Had he not been, perhaps he would have resisted the temptation to throw the kitchen sink at the keyboard and given us piano works closer to the glories of his orchestral, violin and opera music.
Denis Matsuev has the technical prowess to barge his way to the end and the London Symphony Orchestra produced a suitably acid string sound for this brutalist work in a communist era hall – everything, including Noseda’s frantic time beating, added to the feeling of tyrannical violence. Sometimes even great composers write works that should be consigned to history and this is one of them.
For an idea of how even this Grand Palace Hall can be charmed we only had to wait a couple of days – for Alexandra Dariescu’s luminous performance of Ravel’s Concerto. Here was sensitivity without lapsing into sentimentality, just wistful when she needed to be. Most welcome of all, there were no unnecessary accents busting their way in and she showed that a musicianly player can have all the agility she needs without forcing the volume or the speed to irritating extremes. She was playing with a French orchestra which, if not always immaculately together, at least have an intuitive feel for Ravel’s idiom.
If only Yuja Wang had learned some of Dariescu’s lessons as her career blossomed! She seems to have only two modes of playing: pianissimo and tentative or quadruple forte and grand prix speed. The result is very like Formula One racing, an awful lot of noise and spilt fuel even when there isn’t an actual crash. Unfortunately Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto is not about whether the soloist or the orchestra can cross the line first. It is all about shape, curvature and reminiscence – into which the passing explosive passages jolt but should not destroy. The Dresden Staatskappelle Orchestra, possibly with the best string section of all those on offer during the week, did not look overly impressed at the manic playing they were being asked to accompany. Last year’s Enescu Piano Competition winner and Wang’s close contemporary, Daria Parkhomenko, showed how that wonderful work should be played. Find it on YouTube.
Parkhomenko had played in the warmer more intimate accoustic of the Romanian Athenaeum and it was there that the two most rewarding piano concerts of the week took place. The young winner of the 2017 Rubinstein, Szmon Nehring, and the Polish National Radio Orchestra were not surprisingly thoroughly in their element in Chopin’s First Concerto. Both were helped by the clear authoritative conducting of Lawrence Foster, the orchestra’s new Principal, who – unlike most of the other conductors on the podium here – truly listens to where the soloist is leading and does not try to drag him along a different path. Nehring responded in kind and the result was articulate and beauftifully integrated. Foster, whose parents fled from Romania to California as the Nazis encroached, is a conductor who deserves a far more glittering reputation than he has. There are very few of his generation still conducting who have the calm perception that he brings to all his music making.
It was similar calm perception than infused Elizabeth Leonskaya’s reading of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto a few days later. I don’t think I have heard Beethoven playing that assured and concentrated since Alfred Brendel retired. Perhaps, of her contemporaries, only Stephen Kovacevich has such a complete understanding now. Leonskaya was Shostakovich’s go-to pianist when he wanted to be sure the work would be played with the intelligence it deserved and it is obvious why. None of the complexity is ducked or smothered in shallow pianism. The soloist becomes an agent of Beethoven’s symphonic thought and the impression can be savoured for weeks. It was perhaps unlucky for Yuja Wang that her surface skimming performance of Rachmaninov followed within two hours. This was not a competition but she lost badly anyway.