Pascal Bentoiu: A London Homage at the Romanian Cultural Institute

Enescu Concerts Series 2016/17 – Ioanna Bentoiu (soprano, above) and Lena Vieru Conta (piano)

Romanian Cultural Institute, London; Friday 6th April, 2017

Schumann Frauenliebe und Leben Op.42 (1840)

Bentoiu Eminesciana II, Op.8 (1958)

Enescu Sept Chansons de Clément Marot, Op.15 (1908)

The death – in February last year – of Pascal Bentoiu robbed Romania of its finest composer after Enescu, as well as a musicologist and cultural polymath of stature. Save for a broadcast performance of his comic opera Doctor Cupid in 1969, little of his music has been performed in the UK – making this recital and talk at London’s Romanian Cultural Institute a welcome redress. The talk, given by this author and musicologist Mihai Coma, provided a context for three song-cycles given by Bentoiu’s daughter Ioanna and regular pianist Lena Vieru Conta.

Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben was evidently Bentoiu’s favourite lieder cycle and while the overt sentiment of Adelbert von Chamisso’s verse may now seem cloying, the symphonic integration achieved during this telling of a relationship from the female perspective retains its innovatory impulse. Taking care to convey this sequence as a formal and cohesive totality, Bentoiu and Conta were yet mindful of the subtly varying emotional nuance between each ‘movement’ and that sense of resigned fulfilment such as permeates the touching final song.

Although orchestral work latterly came to dominate Bentoiu’s creativity, his output of around 30 songs is a significant and no less typical facet of his composing. The three sonnets which comprise Eminesciana II finds him marshalling the ardent rhetoric and imaginative flights of fancy in which Mihai Eminescu writing abounds. No less distinctive are the piano interludes that not only connect these three settings but also point up musical as well as semantic links between them. Clearly, they need to be explored in the context of the wider song tradition.

For their final offering, Bentoiu and Conta turned to Enescu, and the best known of his song collections. Modest in dimension yet abounding in pointers to the music of his maturity, the Sept Chansons de Clément Marot (of which Bentoiu latterly made an insightful arrangement for chamber orchestra) ranges from ribald humour to searching pathos; the formalized texts yielding an emotional acuity that was tangibly realized by singer and pianist. Enescu, as with Bentoiu after him, was nothing if not penetrating as to his insights into the human condition.

The evening was enhanced by photographic exhibition Pascal Bentoiu: His Life and Works, as curated by Irina Niţu and produced by the George Enescu National Museum in Bucharest. This is at the Romanian Cultural Institute until April 27th, then in part at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens on Saturday 29th April at a concert by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper which includes the UK premiere of Enescu’s Fourth Symphony – completion of whose orchestration was among the most significant of Pascal Bentoiu’s later endeavours.

Richard Whitehouse

For further details on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra’s forthcoming concert of the Fourth Symphony, head to their website

Raluca Stirbat plays Enescu at the Romanian Cultural Institute

raluca-stirbat

Raluca Stirbat (piano), above

Romanian Cultural Institute, London; Thursday 3rd November, 2016

Enescu Prélude et Scherzo (1896)

Franck Prélude, Chorale et Fugue, Op. 21 (1884)

Liszt Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S514 (1862)

Enescu Piano Sonata in D, Op. 24 No. 3 (1935)

The Enescu Concerts Season at Romanian Cultural Institute continued tonight with a recital by Raluca Stirbat, the Vienna-based pianist whose advocacy of Enescu – his residencies as well as his music – has long been central to her activities.

Enescu’s music, what she termed the ‘frames’ of his piano output, book-ended this programme – opening with the Prélude et Scherzo which is the composer’s first piano work of real consequence. A little too rhetorical and rhythmically stolid as the Prelude may be, the Scherzo’s vivid alternating between devil-may-care impetus and (in its trio) elegant repose recalls the eponymous work with which the teenage Brahms announced himself some 45 years earlier. Good, also, that these pieces were heard together, as the resulting expressive duality was to inform Enescu’s thinking thereafter.

Franck had passed on by the time Enescu arrived at the Paris Conservatoire, yet his approach to harmony and texture undoubtedly left its imprint – not least the Prélude, Chorale et Fugue with which the mature composer returned to the solo medium after several decades. Keeping its discursive manner in check, Stirbat duly pursued a secure course through the Prelude and maintained a keen textural clarity in the Chorale, before the Fugue wended its eventful course to a culmination where cyclical ingenuity and emotional fervour were bound together as one.

If Liszt is a less discernible influence on Enescu, the sheer virtuosity and lack of inhibition in much of his piano music is an audible touchstone; not least as deployed in the First Mephisto Waltz. Stirbat despatched the opening pages of this ‘dance in the village inn’ with requisite abandon, and if the central section slightly hung fire, this is arguably as much Liszt’s fault in overly delaying the transformed return of that earlier music; the latter being projected here as characterfully as were the teasing insouciance then the surging irony of its heady conclusion.

The main programme (played without pause and from memory) ended with the Piano Sonata in D which was to have formed the final part of Enescu’s Op.24 sequence had he completed its central portion. Despite advocacy from such as Dinu Lipatti and John Ogdon, the present work enjoys only infrequent revival – doubtless owing to its technical difficulty but also its singularity as music that opens ostensibly in the world of the late Baroque only to close with that of a renewed Classicism.

Stirbat had the measure of the initial Vivace’s rhythmic agility, then brought understated eloquence to the central Andante with its improvisatory variants on a motive of blithe self-effacement, before the final Allegro evinced purposeful onward drive toward an apotheosis which superimposes all the salient themes in a truly joyful outpouring.

A demanding recital, then, which Stirbat rendered with unflagging commitment and resolve. She returned for two encores: first the Baccanale from the Third Piano Suite by Constantin Silvestri, given with due physicality, and the Bourrée from Enescu’s Second Piano Suite – which, as was pointed out, is linked to the finale of the Third Sonata thematically as well as in terms of key. It made for an exhilarating conclusion to an impressive recital that reaffirmed Raluca Stirbat’s authority in the piano music of her native country’s pre-eminent composer.

Richard Whitehouse

The next event in the Enescu Concert Season is a recital by soprano Valentina Naforniţă on Friday 2nd December. More information at the Romanian Cultural Institute website

Remus Azoiţei and Eduard Stan play Enescu at the Romanian Cultural Institute

azoiteistanduoofficial1Enescu Concerts Series 2016/17 – Remus Azoiţei (violin) and Eduard Stan (piano) Photo: Cristian Drilea

Romanian Cultural Institute, London; Thursday 6th October, 2016

Porumbescu Ballade (1880)

Enescu Impressions d’enfance, Op. 28 (1940)

Fauré Violin Sonata No. 1 in A, Op. 13 (1876)

Ravel Tzigane, M76 (1924)

Almost a decade on from its inception, the Enescu Concerts Series is central not only to the activities of the Romanian Cultural Institute but also performance and wider understanding of George Enescu’s music in the UK. This latest season got off to an impressive start with a recital given by Remus Azoiţei and Eduard Stan, whose traversal of Enescu’s music for violin and piano is the recorded benchmark for this crucial aspect of the composer’s output; not least in the case of the Impressions d’enfance that was Enescu’s last major work for the medium.

Completed at the outset of the Second World War, Impressions could be described as a suite were it not for the motivic rigour informing every aspect of these 10 vignettes of childhood not merely evoked but recreated by Enescu over the course of a piece no less cohesive than the violin sonatas preceding it. Such was the impression left by tonight’s hearing – from the deft stylization of Moldavian street music in The Fiddler, through the exquisitely detailed recollections of ‘things lived and dreamed’ that emerge as the music unfolds, to the Sunrise that makes an eloquent and emotionally heightened apotheosis. The often intuitive interplay between the two musicians was undoubted, while the spontaneity with which they rendered Enescu’s detailed expression markings confirmed their appreciation of this music’s essence.

The account of Fauré’s First Violin Sonata was hardly less impressive. As the composer’s breakthrough piece in terms of wider acclaim, it has retained its place in the repertoire and this duo assuredly had the measure of the opening Allegro’s darting flights of fancy then the Andante’s melodic easefulness over Fauré’s favoured barcarolle underpinning. The scherzo had wit and insouciance aplenty, and if the finale can feel just a shade contrived in context, the formal and expressive conviction with which it rounds off this work was never in doubt.

Either side of these works came showpieces with a vengeance. His operettas remain unknown outside Romania, though Ciprian Porumbescu (1853-83) lives on through the Ballade which emphasizes the ‘doina’ melodic style that became a mainstay of later Romanian composers. Enescu was doubtless familiar with this piece and also championed Ravel’s Tzigane which, however uncharacteristic of the French master it may seem, is a rhapsody firmly within the virtuoso tradition and given here with just the right combination of soulfulness and panache.

Azoiţei and Stan duly returned for an encore in the guise of the Bagatelle by Ion Scarlatescu (1872-1922), whose quick-fire virtuosity brought this recital to an engaging close. This new series of the Enescu Concerts could scarcely have been launched in more impressive fashion.

Richard Whitehouse

Remus Azoiţei’s and Eduard Stan’s recording of Enescu’s complete music for violin and piano is on Hänssler Classics

Meanwhile The Enescu Concert Series continues at the Romanian Cultural Institute on Thursday 3rd November, when pianist Raluca Stirbat plays Enescu‘s Prelude & Scherzo and Third Sonata, along with Franck‘s Prelude, Choral et Fugue and Liszt‘s First Mephisto Waltz. Further details can be found at the Romanian Cultural Institute website

Life, the Universe and Music – a conversation with Vasily Petrenko

vasily-petrenko
Photo (c) Mark McNulty

Richard Whitehouse talks to conductor Vasily Petrenko about the music of Enescu and Scriabin, his work with two orchestras who have flourished under his direction (the Oslo Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) and not confusing your Petrenkos!

Chatting with Vasily Petrenko is precisely that: an informal exchange of ideas and anecdotes with none of the potential divisions between interviewee and interviewer. Not that this in any way belies his commitment as a conductor, having brought the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to the 15th Enescu Festival in Bucharest (they first appeared here four years ago) for two of this event’s most ambitious concerts – the second of which featured the Romanian composer’s lavish and hugely demanding Third Symphony (given its London premiere only last February). Was this a work Petrenko had conducted previously?

“No, and I can’t wait to hear how it comes together this evening [for the record, it was an undoubted highlight of the festival]. Enescu still suffers from being thought of as a composer of folk-inspired music, but there’s far more to his thinking. The Third Symphony is an important stage in the evolution of the genre after Mahler, and only really makes its mark in a large venue such as the Grand Palace here in Bucharest. I doubt whether it could ever become a repertoire piece, yet much the same was said of Mahler’s symphonies up until the 1960s so you can never be sure.”

Hopefully Petrenko will soon bring his other orchestra to the Enescu Festival – the Oslo Philharmonic, of which he has been Chief Conductor since 2013. Having appeared at the Edinburgh Festival last month, and with a UK tour next March, theirs is building into an equally auspicious partnership – underlined by the imminent appearance of Scriabin’s First and Fourth Symphonies on the LAWO Classics label. Although no longer the cult figure he once was, Scriabin is still viewed with a degree of suspicion and his abilities as a symphonist treated with some scepticism.

lawo

“I think there are several reasons for this, not least his premature death in 1915 and the advent of the Bolshevik Revolution three years later which meant that Russian music took a very different route from that on which Scriabin was headed. Clearly the piano music – the sonatas in particular – has become part of the twentieth-century repertoire, and I feel that the five symphonies are due the same recognition. You have to remember, too, that Scriabin’s evolution came at a time of immense ferment across all the arts – not least music; indeed, I tend to feel that the history of music from the Renaissance onwards is one of an increasing acceleration, so the early twentieth century was a real explosion of possible ways forward. Only now, perhaps, can we view this era more objectively and get a balanced overview of what was achieved. When this happens, I’m sure that Scriabin’s symphonies will be seen as crucial to their time.”

Was it fortuitous that The Poem of Ecstasy was being designated on this new disc as Symphony no.4? “Not at all, and you can be sure that Prometheus – The Poem of Fire will be given as Symphony no.5 when we record it. Scriabin himself had no doubt these pieces followed on chronologically from his previous symphonies and it’s not difficult to hear why. I think what we might call ‘extra-musical’ factors have tended to draw attention away from their musical content – the formal rigour and especially the thematic economy of which the composer was capable by then.”

Petrenko’s commitment to the Scriabin cause is such that he is keen to perform and, if possible, record Preparation for the Final Mystery that the composer had envisaged prior to his death, and which was realized over the course of three decades by musicologist Alexander Nemtin. “I imagine that the precise nature of Scriabin’s Mysterium [a week-long synaesthetic ‘happening’ in the foothills of the Himalayas, intended to bring about the purification of the human race] can never be known, and maybe even the composer wasn’t too sure beyond the overall concept. Yet the ‘Preparation’ as Nemtin has realized it is more than an indulgence: I feel it stands up as a musical statement in its own right, and would be a great way to crown our work with Scriabin. I’ve little doubt, too, it would come across much more effectively in Oslo’s Konserthus than some remote performance space in the Himalayas!”

Mention of the Konserthus is a reminder that the orchestra finally looks set for a new concert hall – to be situated on the waterfront at Filipstad, with the Oslo Philharmonic as the principal tenant and the project to be financed in conjunction with the building of a congress hotel on the adjacent site. Petrenko remains optimistic, albeit cautiously so, concerning future developments.

“Thirty years on from the initial proposals, and this looks like becoming a reality. Of course, there will always be those who say such a project is taking up resources that could be better used elsewhere, but if you consider the positive impact this is likely to have in terms of infrastructure and employment, then there can be little doubt why it should get the go-ahead. I very much hope it will come about during my tenure with the orchestra.”

Indeed, there seems no reason why Petrenko’s four-year contract in Oslo should not be extended before long. In Liverpool, meanwhile, he has an open-ended contract which only requires him to give three years advance notice of when he wishes it to be concluded.

“This is ideal in that it enables us to plan ahead, with more than enough time in hand when either of us feels the need to move on. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together so far [not least cycles of Rachmaninov symphonies for Warner and Shostakovich symphonies for Naxos], and there’s no reason why it should end when we’re able to put on concerts such as those at this year’s Enescu Festival. That said, I was more than a little surprised when I received congratulatory emails and tweets about taking on the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 2018 [actually the conductor Kirill Petrenko]. It’s great to be popular, but some people had evidently confused their Petrenkos!”