Round-up of the George Enescu Festival 2021
In recent years a biennial event, the George Enescu Festival has been lucky with the coronavirus pandemic: the last festival was held in 2019, six months before the first lockdown. The 25th edition of the festival, held in September 2021, then came along as the vaccines have offered a light at the end of the tunnel, at least for the world’s richest countries. Even with some of these countries being among the most vaccine-hesitant (Romania has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the EU), the festival was able to go ahead with nearly full halls, thanks to a safety concept that mandated the EU digital COVID certificate for entry and the wearing of masks during performances. With these measures in place, the festival ran for four weeks – the longest duration in its history – and saw 78 concerts performed by 3,500 artists in Bucharest, including 32 orchestras from 14 countries.
The 25th George Enescu Festival featured several operas in concert: Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (reviewed here), Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, Berg’s Lulu and Handel’s Partenope. Der Zwerg and other vocal-symphonic works were presented with multimedia projections by Carmen Lidiu Vidu. For Enescu’s Poème roumain (reviewed here), Nona Ciobanu designed richly atmospheric multimedia projections.
The Poème roumain was one of 37 Enescu works performed in 2021 – a record number on the occasion of the 140th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra, an early work, was performed for the first time at the festival by pianist Saskia Giorgini and the Athens State Orchestra conducted by Stefanos Tsialis. Enescu’s oratorio Strigoii was also heard at the festival for the first time, in a performance conducted by Gabriel Bebeşelea, the driving force behind the world premiere recording released by Capriccio in 2018. Enescu left behind a large number of unfinished or abandoned works and an enthusiasm to undertake completions has not only nearly doubled his symphonic output but also seems to have been refreshingly free of hand-wringing. Strigoii went from mere piano sketches to a 45-minute oratorio with orchestration and the George Enescu Philharmonic gave a commanding performance of this speculative completion. Indeed, the best and most strikingly Enescean thing about this performance was Sabin Păutza’s orchestration, which picks up on where Enescu was going in the Third Symphony and marries this to the portentous, multidirectional sound world of Œdipe.
Further Enescu works were presented in dialogue with music by Stravinsky, marking the 50th anniversary of the latter’s death. Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra bookended Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C with Enescu’s Isis and Romanian Rhapsody in A major. Vladimir Jurowski, the outgoing director of the George Enescu Festival, performed the most ambitious all-Stravinsky program of the festival with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, which featured works such as The Flood, Renard and Les Noces.
Historically informed performance was another focus of this year’s festival, with several early music ensembles in attendance: L’Arpeggiata, Il Pomo d’Oro, La Cetra Barockorchester Basel and Les Arts Florissants, among others. One of the pleasures of a major international festival is the opportunity to experience artists you have been waiting to hear for a long time, and I was happy to finally see the wonderfully measured Andras Staier, whose craft is all about the mindful placement of each note, which he goes about with assiduous care and focus. The highlights of his ‘Bach and sons’ program, which he performed together with the Orchestra Controcorrente on the final weekend of the festival, were the three big concertos: Brandenburg No.4 and No 5, with excellent solo work by harpsichordist Luca Quintavalle and concertmaster Alfia Bakieva (Quintavalle’s cadenza in the first movement of the fifth Brandenburg was sensational), and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Concerto in F major for two harpsichords, which Quintavalle and Staier turned into a mesmerizing dialogue, especially in the elusive chromatic meditations of the slow movement.
It has become a tradition that the George Enescu Festival ends with an appearance by the Concertgebouw Orchestra and this year they did a pair of concerts with two different conductors – Alan Gilbert and Daniel Harding. I heard the Gilbert program, which the Amsterdammers played sensationally, with Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini sounding as much a concerto for orchestra as for piano (though Kirill Gerstein was great too, making light work of the piece’s shifting contrasts with almost Chopinesque touch). Gilbert then gave a modernist reading of Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, which for once really sounded like it was finished in 1922, the founding year of the International Society for Contemporary Music. This New Objectivity Nielsen occasionally seemed a little austere, but it was more than saved by the glorious playing, and the blazing coda brought the audience to its feet. It was an electrifying end to the George Enescu Festival, which returns in two years – but in a different Romanian city than Bucharest, its usual home. As a special one-off that coincides with its upcoming designation as a European capital of culture, Timișoara will be the host city in 2023.