Oberon Symphony Orchestra – UK premiere of Enescu’s Fourth Symphony

Richard Whitehouse on a major British premiere given by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Samuel Draper (above)

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 29 April 2017

Mahler Blumine (1884)

Bartók Romanian Folk Dances, BB76 (1917)

Schubert, realized Newbould Symphony No. 10 in D, D936A (1828) – Andante

Enescu Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1934, orchestration completed Bentoiu) UK premiere

Tonight’s concert from the Oberon Symphony featured a British premiere (the second from this orchestra) in the Fourth Symphony by Enescu. Written largely during 1933-4, this was left in abeyance with only the first movement and the start of its successor orchestrated. That the work was structurally complete enabled the composer and musicologist Pascal Bentoiu (who would have turned 90 this month) to prepare this in 1996 for performance; since when, there have been several more hearings in Romania and Germany but not until now in the UK.

Compared to the opulence of its two predecessors, the Fourth Symphony is audibly a product of the inter-war years. Playing for around 33 minutes, its three movements evince traits from Bartók and Stravinsky, but there is little overtly neo-classical about a content which features some of the most emotionally charged music Enescu wrote. Much of this impact is achieved by opening-out the nominal formal designs in a process of continuous variation that extends across the piece, and resulting in a ‘tragedy to triumph’ trajectory beholden to no precedent.

It was that sense of music in perpetual evolution that came over strongly in this performance. Adopting a trenchant yet never inflexible tempo for the opening Allegro, Samuel Draper duly brought out the drama and pensiveness of its main themes, then found no mean eloquence in the climactic stages prior to a brutal descent into silence. From here emerges a fusion of slow movement and intermezzo that unfolds uncertainly but never aimlessly across a landscape of echoes and allusions; an intensifying processional Draper controlled superbly while ensuring the melismatic solo writing was accorded necessary expressive space. There was a palpable expectancy conveyed as the finale hovered into view; this free rondo evolving as if a ‘stretto’ of mounting activity to a coda whose affirmation is informed by evidently bitter experience.

It was just such an ambiguity that came across so tangibly here, Draper maintaining seamless momentum throughout this movement’s formal complexity and textural intricacy as found its fulfilment in the tonal resolution of the closing bars with their implacable final chord. This set the seal on a reading of real conviction and insight, in which the Oberon SO has rarely played better, that communicated itself readily to the enthusiastic audience. The UK may have had to wait over two decades to hear this work live, yet its essential worth was more than vindicated.

The first half prepared well for the Enescu with a trio of contrasted pieces whose juxtaposition itself offered food for thought. Starting as incidental music then briefly finding a home in his First Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine had a wistfulness and poise to the fore here, then Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances elided keenly between incisiveness and elegance. Schubert’s ‘Tenth Symphony’ is one of music’s great might-have-been’s, the Mahlerian overtones of its central Andante made explicit in Brian Newbould’s realization as in Draper’s sensitive interpretation.

An impressive showing, then, for the Oberon Symphony as it approaches five years of making music. And, with the Fourth Symphonies of Brahms and Vaughan Williams scheduled for the next two concerts, its future programming promises to be no less ambitious and resourceful.

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

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