Constantin Silvestri, Vol. I – Tchaikovski; Prokofiev; Dvorák – Yves St-Laurent

by | May 30, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Constantin Silvestri, Vol. I = TCHAIKOVSKI: Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasie; PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 4 for the Left Hand Op. 53; DVORÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “Du Nouveau Monde” – Georges Bernard, piano/ Orchestre national de la RTF/ Constantin Silvestri – Yves St-Laurent YSL T-1291 (79:18) [] ****: 

In an Atlanta interview, I questioned visiting conductor Sergiu Comissiona (1928–2005) about his major influences in music, and he immediately named fellow Romanian conductor Constantin Silvestri (1913-1969) as his primary mentor: “Silvestri was a great creator of musical colors in the orchestra. He could be muscular and aggressive with a score he cherished but always sensitive and attuned to nuances. He expected his students to be equally alert to these values.”  After having left his native country, Silvestri toured various countries, including Australia, making his home in Paris before his defection to Great Britain, where he would assume the directorship of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble whose level he raised to an upper echelon among British ensembles. Assistant Conductor James Loughran commented, “He succeeded in getting the orchestra to be so pliable that they could watch his every movement, every nuance, and respond to it. It became by far the freest and most virtuoso orchestra in the country. It was quite extraordinary.”

This first issue from Yves St-Laurent complements the extensive, 15-CD collection (via EMI archives) from Warner Classics, “Constantin Silvestri: The Legendary Conductor” (7 23347 2), that contains two alternate readings, both with French ensembles, 1957 and 1959.  The version of The New World Symphony presented here, from the Besancon concert 11 September 1959, proves fleeter and more taut than either of the studio readings, graced by an elastic sense of rhythm and innate, tragic drama, much in accord with comparable interpretations by the gifted Hungarian Ferenc Fricsay. Once past the introductory Adagio, the first movement’s Allegro molto bolts forward, alive with warm, interior voices and an outer sheen quite palpable. Even without the first movement repeat, the breadth of conception remains, the ensemble whistling in driven, synchronized harmony on a par with a Szell reading from Cleveland.  The sonic image, somewhat overly keen on the brass and battery, makes us wish we had fuller access to Silvestri’s blazing strings. 

The famous Largo receives here its tersest realization: at barely 9 minutes, it plays much faster – due to an uncredited, decisive cut in the recording – than the studio readings, at 13:39 (October 1959) and 11:41 (December 1957), respectively. Nevertheless, the sense of ritual, of a pantheistic, sacred occasion, haunts the progression, informed as it is by the composer’s absorption of native American impulses.  In its quiet moments, the “Going home” motif becomes sensitively intimate, in the manner of chamber music, unfortunately cut short by the tape. 

True tension returns for the last two movements, especially the manic Scherzo: Molto vivace, taken as an unabashed tour de force by Silvestri’s forces. Despite the lunges and gallops, some in imitation of the volleys in the Beethoven Ninth, the music enjoys a capricious sense of color in the trio section. The outer section returns, flailing and intensely urged, almost at times smearing the line, relentless. The Allegro con fuoco opens with a fanfare intent on a dramatic quest not to be denied.  Silvestri quite simply invokes a whirlwind whose momentum, while stopping to sing nostalgically, refuses to halt a sense of inexorable power. As a testament to a conductor’s discipline, his will to impose a vision on an ensemble, the dramatically colorful performance impels us to accept Silvestri on his own, demandingly volatile terms.

Silvestri opens the concert with Tchaikovski’s [sic] 1870 Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture, a work that earned, after significant revision, the confidence and support of mentor Mili Balakirev.  The Warner collection does not contain any studio rendition of this expressive, dramatic work by Silvestri, and he and his French ensemble quickly demonstrate their collaborative capacity for sustained, lyrical narrative. Silvestri’s strokes remain broad, expansive, a cross between Cantelli’s lean, driven approach and the indulgences in a Celibidache rendering. The French brass and battery rise to the occasion with repeated emphasis, finally ceding to the eternal evocation of love in D-flat. Silvestri unfolds the theme in small gestures, gradually molding a magically colored aura marked by the harp’s presence. The development section – given the composer’s desire to adhere to sonata-form and German polyphony – emerges with distinct, driven clarity. The percussive aspects of the section enjoy a definitive frisson quite compelling. Once more, we may well appreciate Silvestri’s silken transitions, effected without sag, lyrically intense. The coda, marked by a woodwind orison that laments the tragic fate of the protagonists, reaches an apotheosis here colored by Silvestri’s innate love for ballet scores. Silvestri does not opt for the Stokowski “soft” ending advocated by the composer’s brother. 

Quite the sonic shock to segue suddenly into the fierce Vivace from Sergei Prokofiev’s 1931 Concerto No. 4 for the Left Hand, based on a commission from Paul Wittgenstein. We move immediately from high romance to classically chiseled irony, punctuated by dazzling piano leaps and staccato jabs over whimsical figures in strings and woodwinds. Pianist Georges Bernard, new to this auditor, makes a strong case for his left hand, managing the considerable demands, technical and dynamic, while offering the illusion of a two-hand display piece. The fluent bustle of the movement, a ceaseless moto perpetuo, exerts a potent inertia.   

The second movement, Andante, offers a reflective interlude, the heart of the work; and we feel Prokofiev’s unique melodic talent, his ability to evoke romantic tenderness in spite of his natural diffidence and sarcasm. Bernard has a cadenza of sorts, part parlando, that ushers in the orchestra’s lyrical string section in a (modal) manner expressively akin to moments in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. Misty and gloomy at once, the last pages invoke an unworldly lyricism that fades away. 

A martial surge follows, Moderato, a sonata movement clearly meant as an emotional foil, much in the manner of Stravinsky’s neo-Classic style. The brass and battery engage the solo in some jagged rhetoric, the melodic line serpentine and convulsive. A certain buoyancy manages to emerge, even moments of textural delicacy, after a fashion, likely French. Bernard again has moments of semi-cadenza, dotted rhythm propulsion and staggered scalar phrases, even a rhythmic thrust of two traceable to the composer’s own C Major Concerto. A new section, heavy and martial, intrudes, though the orchestra tries to soften the effect, which the keyboard denies. The extended coda whirls and thumps to an abrupt conclusion. The last movement, another Vivace, frames the interior movements as a terse epilogue, the brisk virtuosity likely related to the last movement of Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata. Bernard’s fleet fingers execute the runs and leaps effortlessly, concluding with a high, pp run to B-flat, leaving the audience a bit hesitant before the applause. 

—Gary Lemco

Album Cover for Silvestri Vol. 1

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