BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania has a long record of defying the catastrophes history has served up, so it certainly would not allow the pandemic to derail the George Enescu International Festival, devoted to its premier musical native son, which ended on Sunday. At stake was not only the 25th edition of this country’s largest cultural event, but also the renewal of a global artistic exchange that this still-marginalized part of Europe considers essential to its development.
Stubbornly underappreciated elsewhere, Enescu (1881-1955), whose “Oedipe” runs at the Paris Opera through Oct. 14, remains a pervasive presence here, even beyond the musical realm. His face is on Romania’s five-lei note; Bucharest’s largest orchestra is the George Enescu Philharmonic. A sumptuous Beaux-Arts palace along the fabled Calea Victoriei that served briefly as his home is now the Enescu Museum and the headquarters for the Romanian Composers Union.
Credited with giving Romanians a national voice inspired by the country’s rich folk music, Enescu also had a fully cosmopolitan outlook that embraced multiple stylistic shifts. He embodied an ideal of the complete musician in his roles as composer, virtuoso violinist and pianist, conductor, teacher and generous mentor to younger artists. Yehudi Menuhin praised him as “the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever experienced.”
Even as the continuing pandemic dashed hopes for a return to more normal life, an astonishing roster of 32 orchestras from 14 countries managed to travel here for the festival, among the most extensive classical music events in the world. Scheduled every two years, it runs in alternation with the George Enescu International Competition for young performers and composers. The festival started in 1958, three years after Enescu’s death, and was initially presented every three years. But an attitude from the Communist government that could be described as ambivalent at best turned downright hostile and self-destructive during the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Much had to be rebuilt following the revolution of 1989.
The festival lasts four weeks, with multiple events each day. A major focus is the lineup of top international ensembles, many of which are asked to include a work by Enescu in their touring repertoire. The ticketed events take place in four concert venues in the center of Bucharest, but seven other cities around Romania also present concerts under the festival’s auspices.
The conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who concludes his tenure as the festival’s artistic director with this edition, emphasized in an interview the strategic importance of having visiting orchestras commit to a work by Enescu. Many of them will go on to perform these when they return home, he said, “further widening the appreciation and visibility” of the Romanian composer.
“I have been especially proud of bringing Enescu’s work to London and Berlin and Moscow with my own orchestras over the years,” he added, including a concert version of “Oedipe,” Enescu’s only opera.
Luring audiences to Bucharest, however, continues to vex festival organizers. “Everybody has a false image about Romania,” said Mihai Constantinescu, the event’s executive director since 1991, when asked why the mammoth undertaking isn’t on the radar of many abroad.
“But the moment they arrive here,” Constantinescu added,” they are amazed.”
The violinist Leonidas Kavakos, a longtime regular, spoke of the intensity of the audience’s appreciation: “They remain very quiet, very receptive. You feel the thirst for music and for interacting, and that is something that is vital for anybody who goes onstage.”
When Kavakos joined the Munich Philharmonic for the first of that orchestra’s two concerts under Valery Gergiev, he seemed to astonish himself with the sheer sonic pleasure of tracing Tchaikovsky’s continually repeated melodies in the Violin Concerto in as pure and unindulgent a manner as possible. The wildly unpredictable Gergiev was more engaged than in recent memory, presiding over a magnificently shaped version of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, an unusual and memorable pairing with the Tchaikovsky concerto.
Enescu, the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja said, “is a universe for himself,” adding, “I find it remarkable how he discovered his language.” She is another festival regular, and at this edition introduced Valentin Doni’s orchestrated version of one of Enescu’s most fascinating and challenging chamber pieces, the Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano (“Dans le Caractère Populaire Roumain”).
Despite her vivid stage presence and the valiant efforts of Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the concept felt doomed from the start by the impossibility of balancing the forces; the orchestrated piano part kept distracting from Kopatchinskaja. But an experiment that didn’t work served to underscore the festival’s openness to exploring new facets of Enescu and his work.
It was a sign of the respect the festival receives in musical circles that Gardner chose it as the occasion for his first public performance since officially taking the reins of the London Philharmonic. Their two programs were part of a deliberate emphasis on British orchestras in this festival edition as a post-Brexit statement of musical solidarity. Six of the seven London-based ensembles initially invited were able to work around the stringent quarantine protocols and perform in Bucharest.
“It’s a beautiful requirement that the festival has for us to include a piece by Enescu,” Gardner said. The program framed the sonata orchestration with Michael Tippett’s Ritual Dances from “The Midsummer Marriage” and a colorful, high-contrast account of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” The next evening, Gardner proved to be a natural storyteller with a thrilling and theatrically paced rendition of Sibelius’s Second Symphony.
However much Enescu has been lionized here, aspects of his legacy continue to be reappraised or even rediscovered by Romanians. The pianist Angela Draghicescu garnered media interest around the country for introducing to the festival the long-forgotten Piano Trio No. 1, from 1897, which she performed with colleagues from the Berlin Philharmonic.
Draghicescu gave the trio its belated American premiere in 2019 and has become an authority on the enigmatic history of this precocious, Brahms-besotted score, written by Enescu when he was 16 and first discovered as a student in Paris.
“It’s still unknown,” she says, “and only now, after the U.S. premiere, has it started to gain an international reputation.”
A surprising number of works also received their belated Romanian premieres. One of these was Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 opera “Die Tote Stadt,” performed by the Enescu Philharmonic in a concert version infused with loving detail by the conductor Frédéric Chaslin. In the opera’s final moments, the central character recognizes the futility of his desire to arrest time and loss. The score’s radiant resolution settled like a benediction across the vast space of the Sala Palatului, a former congress hall for the Romanian Communist Party whose exterior still bears the scars of bullets from the 1989 revolution.
Constantinescu has guided the festival since shortly after that traumatizing transition, but, along with Jurowski, he has announced his intention to depart following this 25th edition. The sought-after Romanian conductor Cristian Macelaru has been rumored to succeed him. Or was it just coincidence that toward the end of the festival, the announcement came that Macelaru had committed to record Enescu’s complete orchestral oeuvre with the Orchestra de France for Deutsche Grammophon?