Let me begin with a correction: these are not Silvestri's "complete" EMI recordings. In fact he collaborated on a number of important concerto performances that are not included, but apparently these will have to wait for another day. What we do have here is a fifteen CD collection that comprises Romanian conductor Constantin Silvestri's complete orchestral recordings, from his first session in September of 1957 with the French Radio Orchestra (the first of two versions of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony included) to his final session in January of 1968 with the Bournemouth Orchestra (Ravel's Pavane for a dead princess). Needless to say, I won't get around to discussing all these performances individually, though I've listed the entire contents after the ratings below. But I would like to suggest why these recordings are deserving of your urgent and immediate attention.
Silvestri was born in Bucharest in May, 1913, and spent his early years establishing a reputation in his native country, first as a child prodigy (he made his professional debut at the age of ten) and later as a composer of a wide range of works, some radically experimental. But it was as a "precociously gifted if highly unorthodox" conductor that earned Silvestri his greatest success, and in 1945 he was appointed music director of the Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1953 Silvestri ran afoul of the local communist bureaucracy and was promptly dismissed. Though he continued to find work in Romania (mounting a famous production of Georges Enescu's opera Oedipus Rex in 1958), he eventually fled that same year, never to return. In 1957 his London debut with the Philharmonic created a sensation, though typically Silvestri ignored the glowing reviews and complained about the lack of adequate time for rehearsal. Eventually he settled in Paris where his work with the French Radio Orchestra and the Conservatory Orchestra was enthusiastically received, and eventually led to his first recording sessions for EMI. Over the following years, Silvestri was a welcome guest in Europe and America before finding a permanent home as the music director of the Bournemouth Orchestra in 1961. He died suddenly in 1969 of liver cancer at the tragically early age of 55.
From his earliest years as a conductor, Silvestri's interpretations sparked controversy. Even in an age that allowed for far greater freedom than ours does, he stood out as a distinct and individual spirit. Like Toscanini, Celibidache, and Carlos Kleiber, he was fanatically demanding, a meticulous and uncompromising perfectionist who rarely received the extensive rehearsal time he felt he needed. You want to talk about obsessive? Here's an account of Silvestri rehearsing a passage from Debussy's Nocturnes with the London Philharmonic: the passage in question takes up less than a minute in performance. Nevertheless, "when the coranglais played his solo in Nuages, Silvestri made it very clear that he wanted much more interpretation and greater expressiveness. He almost took him through bar by bar in this way, always asking for expressive phrasing and demonstrating what he wanted."
At the time, many wondered why Silvestri chose to take on the distinctly provincial Bournemouth Orchestras when he had more lucrative offers from far more prominent orchestras. The answer was, of course, that he could finally have all the rehearsal time he wished. And rehearse he did. As the orchestra's principle percussionist Jacqui Gush reports, "It could be terrifying at rehearsals. He worked extremely hard himself and he expected the same of everybody else. He regularly made people play on their own, over and over again, and not just the principals — he took the strings desk by desk, and even wanted to hear some of the individual players separately. His ambition was to get us to get us to play together as sensitively as a string quartet."
Though his rehearsal regime was definitely
extreme, Silvestri's goal was always clear. Once his musicians had mastered the
technical challenges of a piece, they could then project its expressive content
fearlessly. Given his exacting rehearsals, you'd expect Silvestri's performances
to be a little rigid. But they're not at all. The best performances here (and
that includes most of them) are characterized by a sense of spontaneity and joy.
Whether he's working in Vienna or London, Paris or Bournemouth, Silvestri's
single-minded dedication resulted in performances that were at once brilliant
and imaginative, utterly transparent and rich with atmosphere and color. In the
seven years he spent in Bournemouth, he transformed a second-rate orchestra into
the world-class ensemble: the incandescent Scheherazade
recorded in 1966 offers a bracing demonstration of the wonders the achieved in
his short time there.
A friend once said that the ultimate test of a conductor's greatness was his/her interpretations of the core repertory: Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. I wouldn't necessarily argue with that proposition, but I think how a conductor handles the popular classics tells us just as much about him/her. As head of EMI, Walter Legge liked to pigeonhole his artists, and Silvestri was often assigned the warhorses. If you check out the list of contents below, you'll see that just about every "pops" classic is front and center: the Polovotsian Dances and Night on Bald Mountain, the Capriccioespagnol and the CapriccoItalien, the "Sabre Dance" and the Danse Macabre, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Les Preludes — and many more besides. Some conductors run through these works on automatic pilot, counting on their very familiarity to produce the desired effect. I'm thinking of Arthur Fiedler here, but God knows, there are many others just as guilty. Worse still are the big name conductors who speed their way through remorselessly (Solti, Bernstein) or apply cosmetic touches to suggest a personal stamp (Karajan, Stokowski). Silvestri takes each of these pieces seriously, treats them as the masterpieces they are. With orchestras like the Vienna and Philharmonia firing on all cylinders, his performances are vibrant, fresh, and uniformly sensational. His concentration and intensity are apparent in every bar. Magically he removes the rust of familiarity and routine, and lets us hear these pieces as if for the first time.
He is just as convincing in the major Romantic
symphonies he was also assigned: 7-9 by Dvorak and 4-6 and the "Manfred" by
Tchaikovsky, though here I have a caveat. I find the way Silvestri phrases the
motto theme of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony willfully peculiar. This is a
shame really, because the rest of the performance is thrilling. I have no such
reservations about the Fifth, Sixth, or the "Manfred." Silvestri's Tchaikovsky
is dark, roiling, and fiercely dramatic. By contrast, his Dvorak is
ardent, rapturous, and bright-lit. It's interesting to compare Silvestri's first
(mono) version of Dvorak's "New
World" Symphony recorded at the beginning of his career with the
stereo version that came just a few year later. The mono is hard driven and
dynamic. The stereo is no less exciting, but has a more natural sense of ebb and
flow, light and shade. The earlier version of the Largo is well done certainly,
but the later version has a hushed intensity and tenderness that is deeply
affecting. The passionate Seventh receives one of its greatest recorded
performances. Of the Eighth, critic Jon Tolansky has said, "it brings together
joyous dance rhythms and poignant nostalgia, poetic colors and spontaneous
abandon." It is one of the highlights of the set.
Silvestri achieved his first successes in Paris,
and his interpretations of the French repertory suggest why. His performances of
Ravel and Debussy are just as detailed and transparent as Boulez's, but much
more daring and sensuous. His Bolero
is languorous, suggestive, then ever more menacing, as it builds to its
nose-thumbing climax. His Nocturnes
suggest otherworldly landscapes, the "Sirenes" very seductive indeed. La
Mer is a kaleidoscope of shifting colors and perspectives, with a
very dramatic edge; the climactic storm genuinely terrifying. Silvestri's Symphony
in D Minor and his SymphonieFantastique
are fervent, unashamedly Romantic interpretations that can stand with the very
best. The Franck is atmospheric and dynamic, powerful and tender in equal
measure. The Berlioz is as moody and impetuous as Munch, with many surreal
touches, and a truly hallucinogenic "Witch's Sabbath."
Silvestri remained an active composer throughout
his busy career as a conductor, and that made him a sympathetic interpreter of
Twentieth Century repertory. The performances — even of the most familiar
works (Shostakovitch's Fifth Symphony, Khachaturian's Gayaneh,
Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges)
— are revelatory. Silvestri's approach — full of warmth, color, and
expressivity — is the very opposite of Boulez's clinical objectivity or Solti's
shallow virtuosity. Many of these recordings — the Mathis
der Maler, Bartok's Divertimento,
Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody, Elgar's
Overture: In the South, Stravinsky's
Song of the Nightingale and Symphony
in Three Movements — have never been bettered. Vaughn Williams' Fantasia
on a Theme of ThomasTallis has been done to death a thousand times
over, but never with the intensity and ardor Silvestri brings to it here.
While the sound lacks the tonal richness of a modern recording, the transparency and realistic soundstage are well suited to Silvestri's virtues as a conductor, and the power and delicacy of his performances are vividly captured. And there you have it: a treasure trove. If I had to characterize Silvestri with a single word, it would be "vibrant." You might well quibble with this or that interpretive touch, but there isn't a dull moment in this entire set. What other conductor could possibly match that achievement? And I've saved some good news for last. This 15 CD box set is currently selling for $34 on Amazon, and that makes it one of the greatest bargains you'll ever find. I know I've made some very extravagant claims here, so I invite you to listen and judge for yourself. At that price, how can you go wrong? I'm betting you'll find hour upon hour of unalloyed pleasure. I end this review with heartfelt thanks gratitude to EMI for having made these performances available at such an affordable price. They have done musical history an invaluable service. Though his entire recording career only lasted a little over ten years, there can no longer be any doubt that Constantin Silvestri was one of the greatest conductors of the Twentieth Century.
List of Contents:
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