A Pilgrim On The Ocean Of Music

Conductor Constantin Silvestri's first contact with the music of the Occidental world represented a shock because the entire classical and modern music deeply imprinted on the consciousness of the public was utterly shaken by a new, contemporary, vital spark of the Romanian musician who came from the East of the communist continent, his surprising rendition demolishing all the traditional canons. This "Pilgrim on the Ocean" as he was characterised by the English musical critic Malcolm Williamson passed through the scores of Bach and Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, Dvorak and Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Hindemith, Debussy and Stravinsky, in a unique, unheard-of and amazing manner, in which the Romanian maestro's ease throughout the entire repertoire seemed boundless. "The first impression that he makes is perhaps disconcerting – wrote a Swiss chronicler in Journal de Genève on 3rd December, 1959 – for a certain detachment may seem to exist in the way he conducts the orchestra, perhaps even a nonchalant indifference that suddenly turns into frantic directions. But immediately we realize that this air of "not touching" hides – on the contrary – an extreme concentration, which allows the conductor, with an absolute determination, to carry out intentions, as clearly premeditated as lucidly realized. It is quite a deliberate technique that hides under the empirical appearance of the concise and stereotype gestures. Short gestures of the two arms bent, rarely unbending, in sudden leaps of temperature, in which Silvestri proves the surprising power that he has over the musicians whom he lights like tinder." Indeed, conductor Constantin Silvestri's appearance at the music desks of the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra and the Symphonic Radio Orchestra in Bucharest triggered a unanimous reaction of the press and of the melomaniacs towards the particular, personal vision of his interpretative conception. When in the end of Beethoven's Symphony no.9, for instance, the melodic line of Ode to Joy sounded staccato, disconnected, laying the stress on every sound, people were astonished. Schiller's words, which seemed to be separated by the conductor into syllables, with mild pauses between the sounds that were excessively emphasized puzzled the auditory. Afterwards, the effect proved to be electrifying, Silvestri's innovation being accepted, and the closing accords of Beethoven's symphony generating an indescribable enthusiasm. The same happened with Tchaikovsky's Pathetica not to mention the sensational version of the symphonic poem Manfred by the same Russian classic that, until today, didn't have a more moving rendition at the Romanian Athenaeum in the last half a century. Which was the "secret" of Constantin Silvestri's art? Perceived from behind, he didn't seem a spectacular conductor on the stage, he contortioned according to the musical line, switched the baton from the right hand to the left one, in order to expressively shape the line of the sonorous discourse, from one group of instruments to the another, he exploded in the moments of dramatic conflict of the score, requesting excessively powerful sonorities. However, the Silvestrian orchestral tinge was unique in its delicacy, having a particular, unmistakable timbre. He worked very scrupulously during the rehearsals at reaching the orchestral finesse, as it was from there that those surprising effects came, especially with the descriptive works (The Charming Amour by Manuel de Falla, Bolero by Ravel, Manfred by Tchaikovsky, The Apprentice Sorcerer by Dukas). The play of details represented for the conductor as many colours, the passionate investigation into the new stimulating him in his permanent artistic approach. Constantin Silvestri is the slave of emotion in the ocean of sounds, sailing at the steering wheel of a ship that swings on the breath of waves, which change both their colours and their direction in order to maintain the pressure of the ecstasy and contraction moment. He knew how to search in the depths of scores dominated by human anxieties, for deeply moving the listeners with the joys of spiritual greatness (Missa Solemnis by Beethoven, the Requiem by W. A. Mozart, the Pathetica by Tchaikovsky). There is, of course, in all the conductor's investigations a special explanation that differentiates him from the other Romanian baton maestros: he is perhaps the only orchestra conductor that had the genuine makings of a great composer. Neither Georgescu nor Massini, not even Celibidache (author of a school symphony in his youth), not to mention the two "youngsters" of our era (Mandeal and Andreescu), had Silvestri's exceptional compositional talent. Only Ionel Perlea promised to become a famous creator, had he not remained infirm of the right hand and passed through so many dramatic life experiences. Nevertheless, the composer Silvestri was obstructed by the conductor Silvestri, the catalogue of his valuable artistic heritage being restricted to 30 odd opuses. However, each title remains unique! Three Pieces for Orchestra, Concerto Grosso, Three Caprices for Orchestra, Three Pieces for Strings on Bihor Themes, Preludes and Fugue (toccata), Two String Quartets, the piano suites, Children Playing and Songs of the Wasteland – represent only a few of the classical repertoire works of the Romanian musical literature of reference valid even today, more than half a century after they were created. Born on the 31st of May, 1913 in Bucharest, Constantin Silvestri began his musical studies at the age of 10 at the municipal conservatoire in Târgu-Mureş with Piroska Metz and Rudolf Ziszmann (piano), Zeno Vancea (theory of music), continuing them at the Conservatoire in Bucharest (1931-1934) with Mihail Jora (composition), Florica Musicescu (piano), Constantin Brailoiu (history of music), Alfonso Castaldi and Ion Nonna Otescu (harmony, orchestration). After he became known as a virtuoso piano-concert performer and an unsurpassed improviser, after he gained, via radio broadcasts, a fame of two-piano concert performer (with Theodor Rogalski), Constantin Silvestri began his career of conductor at the Romanian Opera House, the orchestra of the Christian Youth Association in Bucharest, conductor and director at the George Enescu Philharmonic and the National Radio Orchestra, becoming professor of the conducting class at the Conservatoire (1948-1959). Leaving the country permanently in 1959 (after brilliant debuts in Austria – 1936 and Venice –1939) he had a period of travelling through Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, Africa and North America, remaining at the music desk of Bournemouth Symphonic Orchestra (1961-1969). Here, in England, he became a star of the baton, frequently invited at the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Halle-Orchestra, but he refused to leave his ensemble from Bournemouth that he advanced – in less than a decade – to international brilliance. Seriously suffering from the lungs, Silvestri continued to work enormously, making records at EMI, Columbia, His Master's Voice, Angel Record, Artia, Pathé-Marconi (he obtained the prize of the academy of French records Charles Gross) and collaborating with the most prestigious ensembles like Berliner Philharmoniker, London Symphony Orchestra, Concert-Gebouw from Amsterdam, Suisse Romande, the philharmonics from Moscow and Leningrad, Société des Concerts du Conservatoire from Paris, Orchestre Nationale ORTF from Paris, and so on. This last decade of his life (he died on 23rd February 1969, in London) in which he strived to regain the health he lost in his youth (he suffered from incipient tuberculosis), Constantin Silvestri signed perhaps the most impressive artistic page for the Romanian music: he made known Enescu's music all over the world. After the memorable versions of the Chamber Symphony, the Romanian Rhapsodies, the Orchestra Suites, the Concert Overture on themes with Romanian popular character, the Octet and the Dixtuor, there came that illustrious setting of the premiere in 1958 at the Romanian Opera House of the masterpiece Oedipus. For 30 years, all Romanian conductors followed the unequalled rendition of Enescu's lyrical tragedy the way Silvestri interpreted it! Unfortunately, the conductor left the country for political reasons, and the single record of Enescu's score from…Sophia was lost! It was the tragedy of his life. For no one understood, loved or promoted Enescu in all the tours abroad more than Silvestri. He had discovered (performing the integral of the piano works and chamber music) the cyclical character of Enescu's creation, and succeeded in presenting it in a unitary and original conception worldwide. It is the most defining contribution of the conductor to imposing a national musical heritage in the universal patrimony. Beyond the numerous interpretations of the works of French, Russian and German musical literature, the remarkable place that Constantin Silvestri will have – firstly – in the landscape of contemporary art is represented by the exemplary interpretation of Enescu's creation and of Romanian music (Paul Constantinescu, Ion Dumitrescu, Mihail Jora). Unfortunately, a decade of absolute freedom on the world's meridians meant too little for a life of only 56 years.

by Viorel Cosma (b. 1927)