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The swirling string textures and eerie descending violin line of George Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody are well-known to music lovers, but otherwise we don’t hear a lot of music by this cosmopolitan and many- faceted musician. One of the 20th century’s great violinists, he was also a distinguished conductor and celebrated chamber music player, but for him these activities took second place to his work as a composer. His magnum opus, the opera Oedipe, exerts a spell whenever it appears, and there is a substantial body of other work that draws upon but goes well beyond his Romanian roots.

Enescu lived in both Romania and Paris, preferring the latter after the former went communist in 1947. Any resentment that he abandoned his homeland vanished after his death in 1955: three years later the George Enescu International Festival was established. It languished under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (no friend of the arts) but now, held every other year, the three-week event run by Romanian-born Ioan Hollender (better known as director of the Vienna Staatsoper) is a high point of Bucharest’s musical life.

Programming involves a balancing act between Enescu and other Romanian composers and international orchestras and stars. Most of the Romanian music is concentrated in the first few days, but Enescu is a constant. In three concerts by first-rate ensembles, I heard three of his pieces, each stylistically quite removed from the others, and they argued for hearing his music more often. The Suite No 2 in D major, op 20, an apparent homage to Bach, pre-dates Stravinsky’s and even Prokofiev’s neoclassical endeavours. As robustly played by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev, it recalled a Stokowski transcription in the grandeur of its sonority but proved to be rich in contemporary inventiveness and offered a couple of haunting, long-spanned, quasi-baroque melodies. Enescu’s final opus, the Chamber Symphony, op 33, heard in an alert performance by the Basel Chamber Orchestra, also started with an arresting melody but soon moved toward fragmentation as spiky, caustic motifs were skilfully worked over in contexts often devoid of a sense of tonality. From the Beaux Arts Trio came Serenade Lontaine, a pleasant, single-movement piece with a nostalgic, Vaughan Williams-like melodic glow.

Chamber concerts are given in the Romanium Atheneum (Ateneul Roman), a 900-seat circular hall that is as functionally satisfying as it is gorgeous. It was built in the late 19th century when Parisian Beaux-Arts architecture flourished in Bucharest, a mode that along with the indigenous romanesque style and the Fantasyland buildings built by the Ceausescu regime give Bucharest its distinctive look. Orchestral concerts are given in the People’s Hall, a 4,000-plus-seat relic from postwar communism, which underwent a surround-sound acoustical makeover last year. Observing Joshua Bell’s vibrant yet supple performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, backed by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Romanian conductor Horia Andreescu, before a largely young audience that stretched the huge hall to capacity (where were the fire marshals?), was as much a social experience as a musical one.

And speaking of social experiences, it took a trip to Bucharest for this American to encounter the Bernstein Mass. Even in this era when Bernstein’s music finds the critical favour that eluded it in the composer’s lifetime, the Mass is a little hard to take, owing to its unabashed heart-on-sleeve liberalism and a musical egalitarianism in which popular idioms threaten to swamp classical ones. But there are wonderful moments, including a circus-music Gloria and a zippy gospel number with an affectionate reference to Goddamn God. Watching the text in Romanian subtitles surely didn’t do it any harm, and the performance by the National Radio Orchestra and local choruses pulsated under Wayne Marshall’s baton, with John Cashmore contributing his peerless Celebrant.

The one disappointment was the world premiere staging of The Last Days, the Last Hours by Anatol Vieru, a composer who trained in Moscow in the generation of Schnittke and Gubaidulina and at his death in 1998 was probably Romania’s best-known composer. Based on the play The Last Days by the Russian Mikhail Bulgakov about the death of Pushkin, the opera interleaves episodes drawn from Pushkin’s own “little tragedy” Mozart and Salieri and thus parallels the deaths of the two geniuses, each a victim of court intrigue. The production, however, turned out to be a student affair by Bucharest’s National University of Music for which rehearsal was obviously limited (some of the singers carried scores), although Cristian Mihailescu’s simple staging was by no means inept. No synopsis, let alone libretto, was available except in Romanian. The opera included the expected references to Mozart’s music, apparently balanced by allusions to Pushkin’s verse. The orchestra, authoritatively led by Ludovic Bacs, proceeded in a carefully wrought chamber style that heightened the opera’s theatricality, but a thorough evaluation of this apparently absorbing opera must await another occasion. The festival ought to take another look at it when it returns in two years’ time.

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