CONSTANTIN SILVESTRI, 1913-1969: THE LAST TEN YEARS
By John Gritten, May 2013
I am honoured to have been invited by the distinguished Cluj-Napoca Gheorghe Dima Music Academy to take part in this Constantin Silvestri symposium.
Although it is celebrating the centenary of his birth – in Bucharest in May 1913 – I thought it would be more appropriate if my contribution focused on the last ten years of his life. This is because from the moment he finally left the country of his birth in 1958, an Iron Curtain came down obscuring his reputation from his own countrymen and women. For over thirty years, within Romania, he became a non-person. Even since the 1989 revolution, it would be another nine years before a biography appeared that included a detailed study of his career during those last years – and that was published in London in English, with no edition in Romanian. Yet it was in those last years that he achieved a worldwide reputation as a conductor and, posthumously, would be compared to such of his contemporaries as Herbert von Karajan and Sir John Barbirolli.
In the several dramatic vicissitudes in Silvestri’s career, there are two outstanding enigmas to which any study of his life must seek answers. They are, in brief:
– How and why did he finally leave Romania in 1958?
– And why did he choose to end the three-years of his residence in Paris that followed, in order to become the resident conductor of an orchestra in a seaside resort in Britain?
He was forty-five in 1958 when he left Romania and had been, in succession, principal conductor of the Bucharest Philharmonic for six years, then artistic director of the National Opera and of the Radio Symphony Orchestra. His conducting prowess had been praised in Czechoslovakia and Hungary; he had guest-conducted the Berlin Philharmonic; and in the Soviet Union after a performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, Dimitri himself had gone backstage to congratulate him. He had also composed some forty works, won three Enescu prizes and experienced the gratification of having the first performance of his Toccata conducted by George Enescu. In 1956 his country’s highest cultural honour was bestowed on him: ‘People’s Artist’. The State authorities apparently considered his reputation was a sufficient safeguard of his return to give him a visa for a brief visit to Paris, that same year, to pay his respects at Enescu’s grave.
Some months before that, he had had a chance meeting in Bucharest which would be the prelude to his career’s subsequent critical changes of direction. A British music critic, Malcolm Rayment, when making a talent-spotting tour of Eastern Europe was being shown around Radio Bucharest when he heard coming from its concert hall what he would one day describe to me as ‘a truly electrifying account of the Shostakovich Tenth’. It was being conducted by Silvestri. Rayment had been asked by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to suggest an outstanding conductor from Eastern Europe for a series of four concerts in 1957, to be called: Music of A Century, and he recommended Silvestri – who was again granted a Romanian exit visa.
I was at the second of his first two concerts in London in January 1957 when I noted the great ovation ‘this newcomer to London’ was given after conducting Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Other reviewers were also impressed with what one of them described as [I quote] ‘the tumultuous, almost frenzied, applause of the audience in which the players themselves joined’.
After these four concerts he returned to Romania; but not before the London Philharmonic had invited him to return in six months time to conduct Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in London’s Royal Albert Hall and in six more concerts. Before he returned to Romania the second time, he had conducted in six other towns in Britain; made his début in Paris and in four other West European countries; made a recording with the LPO and ten more with another London orchestra, the Philharmonia, before again returning to Romania for six months of rehearsals with Oedipe. He conducted what would be the first performance in Romania of Enescu’s monumental opera since its première twenty-two years before in Paris. He conducted another five of its eight performances in Bucharest before he left Romania – never to return.
Without having discovered any specific explanation which Silvestri himself may have given, I can only speculate as to the reasons for him taking this decision at the zenith of his reputation in Eastern Europe.
In Romania he had to conform to a politically-oriented bias towards or away from certain musical trends. This amounted to at least partial censorship. In one issue of Muzica, organ of the Romanian Union of Composers, after being praised for his [I quote] ‘great attention to Soviet composers’, Silvestri was taken to task for giving ‘too much attention to works which belong to an outmoded phase of the music of the Land of Socialism’, a veiled reference to Stalin’s criticism of Shostakovich.
Composer Anatol Vieru once told me that, in an evidently very private conversation, Silvestri had condemned the infamous resolution passed at the end of the conference called by Stalin, at which Leningrad Communist Party chief, Andrei Zdanov had made his notorious speech entitled: On Music. Silvestri had called the resolution – to which all musicians behind the Iron Curtain were expected to conform – ‘a conspiracy of the mediocre majority opposed to the gifted few’. In conversations with his brother-in-law, the violinist Mircea Vasilescu, he confided how ‘suffocated’ he felt because his considerable potential was not being realised.
There was a personal factor which must have also influenced his decision to leave. After his sudden departure from Bucharest he had concerts in Moscow and Leningrad before joining in Paris the twice-widowed Regina Meisner, whom he had first met a year before during one of his London visits. During their brief acquaintance she had agreed to meet him again in a year’s time, in Paris where she lived. (Eventually she would become his second wife and both would become British citizens.) Based in Paris for the next three years, he not only guest-conducted in other European cities, but in South Africa, Australia, South America, Mexico and the USA. There, after conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of his own Prelude and Fugue, a reviewer called it ‘a brilliant study in insistence and intensity; exceedingly complex; a well-scored composition.’
And so we come to the year 1961 and the second enigma: how and why did someone who had guest-conducted some of the world’s most renowned orchestras – the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics; four of Britain’s most prestigious; Holland’s Concertgebow and the Suisse Romande – why did he choose to become resident conductor of a provincial orchestra in the south coast of England resort of Bournemouth?
One day its manager, Kenneth Matchett, related to me the story of the foundation in 1893 of the first permanent orchestra in Britain to be owned by a municipality and how it became the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1954. When its principal conductor left in 1960 he had to find a replacement. Over a period of twelve months he invited over twenty guest conductors, one of whom was Silvestri – who had been recommended by both Edgar Cosma, another Romanian conductor refugee, currently living in Paris – as well as by the manager of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Before making his decision, Matchett consulted the players and, recalling their twice playing under Silvestri, he was the one most of them preferred. Matchett went to Paris to put the proposition to the maestro, insisting that he should come to live in Bournemouth and was prepared to conduct up to 70 per cent of all its performances. On his part, Silvestri pressed hard for rehearsal time far in excess of what was normal and for an increase in the number of players. A compromise was reached and a general agreement arrived at so that Silvestri was appointed the BSO’s principal conductor in September 1961.
As someone put it to me who had talked and played with him at least a dozen times, London-based Hungarian pianist Peter Frankl, [I quote]: ‘Silvestri was the type of conductor who needed his own orchestra. He had a personal style. He belonged to the older generation of conductors, of Furtwangler and Klemperer, who could convey music with something more than beats. I think as a purely guest conductor he couldn’t achieve that with only one or two rehearsals. He needed time so that the orchestra could get to know him intimately.’
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra players did ‘get to know him intimately’: his unique and demanding methods of training an orchestra and his idiosyncratic interpretations, often of works in the standard repertoire which hitherto they had played in a quite different way. In the Fifties and Sixties some critics also found these unacceptable just because they were so unorthodox. For example, especially in some of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, he would take the slow movements slower than other conductors in order to bring out their dramatic and romantic elements, the scherzos and last movements faster for more dynamic effect.
For some BSO players it was a gruelling initiation. Raymond Carpenter, principal clarinettist throughout the Silvestri eight-year era, described to me the maestro’s ‘systematic dismantling of the whole orchestra’s memory of how music was traditionally played.’ Yet, although Silvestri insisted on their acquiescence, he encouraged the Bournemouth musicians to co-operate with him and to make their own suggestions. He would involve every group of players in discussion of some part of the score, ask one to play a certain phrase and compare their playing with that of another. These discussions might last an hour and only then would he decide how it was to be done. Carpenter maintained: ’Silvestri was a man with an infallible memory. He seemed never to forget what happened to performers even after months of playing other music. He had what we would now call a computerised brain that could retain and recall. He seemed able to fasten on to any performance from the past and criticise us in detail on the strength of his recollections.’
Silvestri’s rehearsing methods surely provide the key to why he made his Bournemouth choice. He wanted an orchestra he could mould into the form he required and he was very unlikely to achieve that with one that had already established a high reputation which the players could use as a defence against any attempt to change their traditional rehearsal routine and who might find it even more difficult to conform to what they considered his idiosyncratic interpretations.
There were, however, musicians who could appreciate these – of the calibre, for example, of violinist Ida Haendel, whose opinion I sought as one of the distinguished soloists who had played with Silvestri. In her opinion ‘he was quite different from many other conductors, in the sense that he did some things that were unconventional musically-speaking. At the same time, it was so artistic and convincing that I would say to myself: this has to be the only way to interpret it. That’s how magnetic he was. I derived immense pleasure playing with him.’
In a television interview after his Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra appointment was announced, Silvestri was asked whether, after ‘travelling around the world so much’, he was glad to have a permanent orchestra again, to which he gave the reply: `Yes, I was a teacher for ten years and a conductor is also a teacher’. He also made the confident prediction that the BSO ‘would become internationally famous.’ That was prophetic: within four years of his tuition, the one-time ‘seaside band’ was giving its first European tour involving thirteen concerts in five countries, often ending with standing ovations and followed by rave reviews. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was often compared to London orchestras – something it shared with only one other provincial orchestra: the Hallé in Manchester under Sir John Barbirolli.
Such were Silvestri’s demands on an orchestra that he expected long and exacting preparation prior to performances and was shocked when, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, he was permitted only two rehearsals before the first concert. He complained: ‘Unfortunately, the time factor was our sovereign enemy, with the English insisting: “Time is money, every penny counts.”’
The overall result of his methods was a vast improvement in technique throughout the orchestra, particularly in the strings, and he succeeded in his aim: whatever the size of the orchestra, the musicians must play with the sensitivity of a chamber group. Carpenter recalled how he once said to the trumpets when trying to obtain a soft entry: ‘Play like a clarinet!’ He added: ‘Silvestri would achieve great forte chords in the brass with wonderful soft articulation and in the strings amazing soft entries in forte, not an easy thing to get a large orchestra to do.’
In Raymond Carpenter’s memoirs of Silvestri, sub-titled A view from the orchestra, his assessment of the maestro is: ‘He was a benign dictator getting results that amazed and puzzled our audiences and not least ourselves. It was during those years that the BSO won its fame and Silvestri’s reputation was reaching its peak’. It was not quite having ‘reached its peak’ that gave a Greek tragedy dimension to his death, aged only fifty-five, and was the meaning behind the words of Professor Dame Sheila Sherlock, the eminent hepatologist who attended him before he died in a London hospital: ‘The World has lost a great musician’. And behind the words on his memorial stone in St Peter’s churchyard, Bournemouth, where under his name is inscribed:
‘The Maestro of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, 1961-1969
‘AN OUTSTANDING MUSICIAN AND
A REMARKABLE MAN’