Search for recordings by Constantin Silvestri in the current catalogue and you will find precious few. Strip out live performances courtesy of the BBC Legends series and the list dwindles to nearly nothing. All of which makes this new pair of discs manufactured and I assume distributed by Nimbus on behalf of “Rumanian Musical Adventure” all the more welcome. The bad news first: these are all mono recordings taken from BBC broadcasts in the early to mid- 1960s. What is not made clear is whether the audio restoration engineers had access to original master tapes or if this is ‘off-air’. In engineering/technical terms quite a few of the performances are hampered by congested and distorted sound which does limit the detail perceptible in complex-textured works such as the Enescu Symphony No.1
. Conversely the sound quality is significantly better for the two Mozart items allowing the performances themselves to sparkle.
But surely if you are considering these discs as a collector you are already more interested in the musical legacy of Silvestri than the sonic splendour in which it is portrayed. What I particularly like about these discs is the care and devotion that has gone into their production and presentation – except for the minor detail that someone compiling the track timings on the back cover forgot there are only sixty seconds in a minute! The English-only 14 page booklet includes essays on the man himself as well as extended musical notes – particularly relating to the Enescu works – and insights into these actual performances and Silvestri the conductor. The presence of the Enescu works, given Silvestri’s close association with the composer, will be the main lure for many. Not that the pieces themselves are rare in the catalogue any more – various versions being available on Chandos, EMI, Arte Nova and Marco Polo amongst others. Silvestri’s triumph is that for all the sonic limitations mentioned above his performances burn with an incandescent zealous fire that sweeps away technical reservations. Given the relative rarity of the repertoire this commitment should not surprise – but the glorious thing is how the same values – a sense of discovery and revelation – equally apply to ‘basic’ repertoire like Mozart’s Symphony No.29
or Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony
. Raymond Carpenter, who was the Bournemouth Orchestra’s principal clarinettist throughout Silvestri’s tenure, does him a slight dis-service I feel in defensively saying that the Mozart will sound heavy and overly-romantic to modern ears. Not to mine. The Magic Flute Overture
is a joy – full of all the life-affirming energy and elegance one could wish for. Yes, I have heard leaner and lither versions of the symphony but the spirit of Mozart is here in abundance. To my mind the essence of a composer goes deeper than simple issues of performance practice – it is the thought behind the gesture that counts. Which is why a great piece of music can weave its magic in a wide range of equally valid performance styles.
Later in his same note Carpenter alludes to Silvestri’s ability to ‘get under the skin’ of a composer as being one of his greatest skills. In this I am in absolute concurrence with him. Referring back to the other BBC Legends discs – the repertoire covered there is extraordinarily wide and occasionally surprising. Likewise, the studio performances that do survive in the current catalogue centre around the still market-leading In the South
(EMI Classics). This performance is currently hidden away rather as a coupling for the 2 disc set of Barbirolli/Elgar Symphonies from EMI. Ever since its initial release Silvestri’s Elgar has been rightly praised for its power and volatility and ‘non-Englishness’ yet undoubtedly driving to the very heart of the essence of Elgar. If ever there was a radically different but valid vision of a work it is this. Part of the key to this success of this is that it is using ‘his’ Bournemouth orchestra who play with a virtuosity – as on these discs – which belies their provincial location. The liner points out that the kind of detail Silvestri sought and the flexibility he demanded could not be imposed on an orchestra in a couple of days flying visit. Try the final two movements of the Prokofiev symphony [CD 1 tracks 11-12]. The Gavotta
always sounds disarmingly simple, almost naïve. Yet in Silvestri’s hands he coaxes all manner of subtle little nuances and articulations that lift the superficially simplistic to the realm of high art without resorting to mannerism. Then the Finale
crackles with a virtuosic energy that the very finest ensembles would be proud of. Am I imagining this or is it palpably clear that the orchestra wants
to play for their conductor? Interestingly this is the earliest work recorded here – a March 1963 performance just some two years after he took over as the principal conductor. Don’t get me wrong – there are other performances of greater purely technical perfection but the spirit – ah that word again – here seems so right.
The bulk of the second disc is dedicated to the first two Enescu Orchestral Suites
. The opening movement of No.1
could be taken as a model of the type of fluent flexibility Silvestri sought. Titled Prélude à l’unisson
it is quite unlike any other orchestral piece in that, just as the title suggests, the instruments all play the same musical line together – excepting a timp pedal roll – monophonic music in its most literal sense. The only
way this six and a half minute movement works is by total unanimity yet total fluidity – any sense of barlines or predictable beat has to be lost. Silvestri and his Bournemouth strings achieve this superbly. I’m not sure I have heard this movement more convincingly played. Again the sound is rather limited – Carpenter makes the point that the microphones used for BBC regional broadcasts cost a fraction of those used by EMI for studio recordings of the same era – but the ear soon forgets that. The liner-notes for these works are provided by Pascal Bentoiu who is a Romanian composer who has specialized in completing and analyzing Enescu’s works. I would have to agree with him that the three movements that follow this prelude although interesting enough – and well played here with a gorgeous sweet violin solo in the Menuet Lent
for instance [CD 2 track 2 5:20] – are less challenging as music. This second movement is by some way the longest of the four in the Suite
and it weaves a beautiful spell of serene calm. Throughout, a striking feature is the chamber-music like freedom the orchestra achieves – something only made possible if the players trust and follow the stick unwaveringly. If musicians don’t have faith in their conductor they will accommodate potential vagaries of the pulse by playing ever later or behind the beat something which by definition irons out any subtle ebbs and flows in the tempo that the conductor might intend. After the profundity of the earlier movements the closing Vif
does seem to bluster in comparison. Being the loudest and texturally thickest movement it is also the one where sonic limitations are most apparent. Overall a remarkable work for 1902. Another thirteen years were to pass before Enescu returned to the Orchestral Suite as a musical form. Enescu borrows titles from a baroque suite but as Bentoiu points out this is more to give him an overall structure to the suite rather being an excuse for faux-baroque music. This Silvestri performance dates from some three years after the first suite but oddly has worse sound. This does limit the impact of the complex polyphony of the outer movements. Again the simpler movements – track 6 Sarabande
and track 9 Air
fare much better underlining the superb ensemble the orchestra achieved and the beautiful balancing of the various lines, wind soloists emerging from the texture in a way that you know has more to do with skillful balancing from the stage rather than the engineer’s mixing desk. I am not as certain as Bentoiu that this is such a masterpiece but again a joy to hear when as convincingly performed as here.
The most unexpected work on these discs is from Silvestri’s own pen – another conductor all but forgotten as a composer. These are his Three Pieces for Strings
and quite a find they prove to be. Really demanding of the players, the virtuosity level is high but again allied to a rhythmic fluidity that only extended rehearsal can bring. For someone who does not seem to have learnt a stringed instrument as a major study he has an intuitive understanding of what will ‘work’. OK so this is not the most original piece you will ever hear but the fusion of central European passion and energy with a strand of more intimate lyricism – the central movement Cantabile
[track 12] is a real winner – makes for an instantly appealing work. And what a fantastic finale – you could imagine this movement being used by modern day virtuoso ensembles such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra – as a guaranteed storming encore. If proof were ever needed about just how good the BSO became under Silvestri listen to this movement alone. The discs close with their own encore in the shape of three Dvorak Slavonic Dances
. Murky recording rather diminishes the pleasure and curiously Silvestri does not make as much of the dramatic tempo shifts as some – I would have imagined him teasing out every little rubato with glee. In fact these are quite ‘straight’ performances. Obviously this is still fine playing and music-making here but not on the same exalted level as elsewhere on these discs to my ear. The lasting conclusion from these discs is what an exciting time it must have been to play in the orchestra as well as attend concerts as an audience member. Much is made – quite rightly – about the high standards of orchestral playing today but this highlights a glorious past too. If by any chance collectors reading this have not acquired Silvestri’s In the South
I would go as far as saying that performance is truly one of the ‘recordings of the century’ both as a performance and a document of a great artist’s legacy and a compulsory purchase for any dedicated collector.. Thanks once again to Nimbus for widening our depth and appreciation of this great conductor’s work yet further and a worthy tribute to all. Recently, in a review of a brand new recording I said hurray for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and I repeat that here for the 1960s ensemble.
And a further review – from Rob Barnett
This is inevitably a specialist project given the far from sophisticated
1960s radio tape sound. That said, it would be more than a pity
if its audience was restricted to BSO specialists.
Silvestri is here heard in three works by his countryman, Enescu.
It's a delight to hear him in the exuberant First Symphony.
The blood-rush of the first movement has not communicated as
strongly and tirelessly since Rozhdestvensky's 1960s recording
of the same work with the Moscow RSO. The sound is unsophisticated
and bristly with some distortion in those whooping climaxes.
It's remarkable that the composer wrote this toweringly confident
work between the ages of 14 and 17. Give it a chance but be
careful about basing your impressions on any versions other
than Silvestri's or Rozhdestvensky’s if you could find it and
transfer it from that Melodiya LP. The music is like a volcanic
reaction produced by mixing Brahms, Mahler, Walter (try his
first symphony on CPO with Botstein), Richard Strauss and early
Szymanowski (the Concert Overture). It would be a boring work
if it was all pitched at that racing pulse but in fact the music
also finds time to dance delicately. The liner-note writer and
composer Pascal Bentoiu (when will we hear his music I wonder?)
points out that the symphony was dedicated to Casella who in
turn dedicated his own Second Symphony to Enescu. This is glorious
music-making of a type that demands utter absorption from conductors
and orchestras to make the sort of impact that it commands here.
The Mozart overture is done in magnificently burly big-band
panoply and with Jovean aplomb. Yet when it comes to the Symphony,
dynamic delicacy and sensitive pacing ensure delicious results
seasoned with panache. Silvestri was evidently a great Mozartean
only a little less than secure in the slow-slow-slow Menuetto.
That earlier fleetness and quicksilver carries over into the
supercharged Prokofiev - easily as good as Malko's 1950s version
and sounding less strident and more fluent.
What marks out Silvestri's Enescu is evident in the First Orchestral
Suite. This heartfelt work radiates a sense of tender care for
dynamics. The material has an acrid Hungarian skirl and tincture
especially in the middle two movements. The final Vif looks
to the same boiling folkdance frenzy as the more famous Rhapsodies.
The six movement Second Suite is from thirteen ears later. In
it Enescu sets his not inconsiderable imagination loose on Baroque
models with Handelian fugue and dance joining hands with a knowing
twentieth century skill. The Sarabande is more liberatedly cantabile
- cool but always emotionally warmer than anything Stravinsky
produced in his much vaunted neo-classical period. The surging
Bourrée suggests a mix of Lord Berners in Triumphs of Neptune
mixed with the effervescent eruptive power of the Enescu
First Symphony. Silvestri's own Three Pieces for Strings are
tangy, harmonically dense and laden with paprika. The string
writing has something of the rich string canvas of Roy Harris
but is also intensely romantic and quivering with piercing regret.
There’s also a touch of Valse Triste and Rakastava in there.
The waspish and deckle-edged finale has a Caledonian whirl.
We round off in more soothing style with four of Dvorák's Slavonic
Dances but Silvestri will not let them go without laying bare
some exotic east European flavouring.
The notes, when not dealing with Enescu (that's Pascal Bentoiu's
role), are by Raymond Carpenter who as principal clarinet. I
saw him onstage often at the BSO concerts I attended in Bristol,
Exeter and Paignton 1969-1976.
This set would not have existed for Nimbus without the cooperation
of the BBC and the crucial support of the Romanian Musical Adventure
(www.romanianmusicaladventure.org). I hope to hear more RMA-sponsored
discs which open the closed doors of ignorance in relation to
Romanian classical music. I wonder which other Romanian composers
music we should look to see revived.
I hope that there will be more Silvestri from the radio archives
and that sets such as the wonderful 10CD Disky set (DB707432)
gathering what must surely be almost all of his EMI studio recordings.
Thank you so much for the wonderful reviews of "Constantin
Silvestri - A Bournemouth Love Affair".
It is rare these days to see such a perceptive pair of reviews
of historic recordings. Since you were curious about the source
of these recordings I thought I could fill you in on a little
of the story.
During the period that Silvestri was conducting in Bournemouth,
the BBC would occasionally record concerts for broadcast and
later play the tapes back. These tapes were reused over and
over again. As far as Ray Carpenter has been able to tell, there
are no existing original tapes or copies of the tapes in the
BBC. The source of all Silvestri BBC broadcast recordings are
from listeners who recorded the broadcasts off the radio. In
this case the recordings were made by Silvestri or his wife
in their home. In addition, there are a few tapes that were
recorded at home by Ken Matchett, the BSO general manager, although
I don't have the notes with me at the moment to know if any
of these were used on the RMA discs.
Almost all of the tapes were recorded at either 1 7/8 or 3
3/4 IPS. Most suffer from a considerable amount of 50Hz power
mains hum, drop-outs from mild to severe, and bursts of static
or whistles, as well as leakage from adjacent stations. The
original tape machines used can also be as much as half step
or more sharp or flat. In addition, the transfer to the CDs
that Ray provided me for the CDs suffered from being under recorded
in the transfer by as much as 30dB or over recorded and digitally
clipped. Then there is also the fact that the microphones used
for everyday broadcasts were of very low quality and some of
the halls that the BSO travelled and performed in were of dubious
acoustics. Through all of this, my intention was to remove as
much of the crud from the recordings as possible, return the
equalizations to something resembling a live concert, and remove
only as much hiss as possible with out causing any artifacts
or loss of detail. It is a true shame that more of the miracle
that Silvestri worked with the BSO was not recorded in better
sound. Ray and I would be grateful in any help locating better
recorded and preserved off-air transcriptions.
I might add that the BBC Legends releases are generally from
the same set of tapes, except that they are able to have access
to the physical tapes and do their own transfers as opposed
to the copies that I had to work with which were done quick
and "on the fly". Unfortunately BBC Legends does not
bother to correct the pitch on some of their releases and some
of their equalizations are not to my taste.
I came by Silvestri via the Disky 10 disc set and the EMI "In
the South". Let me tell you that if you think that the
EMI performance is something, you should hear one of the broadcast
performances! Unfortunately with the recordings still under
copyright, the payments to BBC Radio and the musicians union
make it just about financially impossible to make these performances,
as flawed as the sources are, available.
Silvestri Audio Restoration Engineer