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Constantin Silvestri, A Musician Before His Time: Conductor, Composer, Pianist

by John Gritten.

Published by Kitzinger (London, 1998), 304pp, ISBN 1900496-12-7

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Until a short while ago I was only aware of Constantin Silvestri as a conductor of insight, integrity and a still sorely missed figure in the music world. Having been born too late to hear him personally, my experience of his work has been via recordings alone, but these leave a strong impression of a serious and complex musician at work.

The art of writing a good biography is far from straightforward. One should include factual detail about the subject with accuracy and authority, but more than that a wider picture of the personality behind the life, and an impression of the times through which the individual lived should be sketched. All of this John Gritten achieves with ease in this volume as he paints an affectionate portrait of Silvestri, his music and his time.

We are taken from his youth, full of precocious talent for improvisation, as a student of the ‘Iron Lady’ Florica Musicescu, who also taught the young Lipatti to his early career as a pianist, ever the groundstone for one with ambitions as a conductor and composer. In the respect of the intertwining of numerous significant musical roles Silvestri appears akin to Enescu, who remarked that the young musician would bring honour to Romania: and so it proved. Yet talent shrouded an often fragile being: it seems particularly in his younger years were cast under the shadow of one depression or another, despite the clamouring of audiences and critical esteem his work was held in.

Gritten rightly stresses the efforts Silvestri went to as a pedagogue and performer to carefully foster both Romanian and foreign composition within his native land. His students included leading lights of the Romanian avant-garde such as Anatol Vieru, and he was closely associated with a production and planned recording of Enescu’s magnum opus, the opera Oedipe, which never came to pass due to ‘political interference’ one might say. Following his decampment from Romania – first in Paris and later in Bournemouth – Silvestri always carried that passion for music and music-making within him, the knowledge that the act itself had the power to move and change (even fleetingly) the lives of those around him.

His time in Bournemouth is covered in depth, and it seems at first some people found it hard to accept Costi - as those close to him affectionately called him. The chapter ‘How not to be an alien’ might be considered essential reading for anyone attempting to deal with the English Establishment whilst possessing a scant linguistic grasp – the nerve of Costi’s cheeky remark to the Duke of Edinburgh ("We are both mongrels", before elaborating "I am an Italian-Austrian-Romanian") had me screaming with laughter ...

But it was not only linguistic matters that rubbed against the grain with some - though not, it seems with his orchestras - it was also Silvestri’s very expressive style of conducting – to the extent that he almost seemed to embody works – and this at a time when it was quite out of fashion as an approach in the UK. Today the Romanian chief guest conductor of the Hallé, Cristian Mandeal, brings to mind the Silvestri ‘model’ by similarly expounding compositions works from the inside out.

It wasn’t made with regard to Silvestri so far as I know, but one can imagine Beecham’s caustic remark being applied: "Why do we employ so many third rate foreign conductors when there are so many second rate home grown ones about?" Such views say more about those that make them than about their target in any case. But the view is not one-sided as the book benefits greatly not only from Gritten’s own recollections of hearing Silvestri in action. There are also a large number of interviews and recollections from those that knew Silvestri throughout his life, personally and professionally, both in Romania and the UK. That Costi finally came to be accepted by the notoriously narrow-minded musical establishment was a result of little more than constant effort on his part, and some notable musical results drawn from the wide variety of orchestras he conducted. Audiences it would appear took to him far more readily.

Composition held (until the age of forty) an important role in Silvestri’s life too – not only piano music but some highly complex and idiomatic orchestral scores and songs flowed from his pen – often imbued with a calculated pseudo-improvisatory feeling. Composition ceased as conducting took over more and more of his time, and his compositions are listed in Appendix 1, which is followed by a useful analysis of some 19 pages written by Zeno Vancea, Silvestri’s composition teacher at the Târgu Mureş Conservatoire. With numerous musical extracts, it’s likely to be of most use to trained musicians or amateurs with good score reading skills, but the fact that an analysis is included at all demonstrates the commitment given here to providing a volume that has something to offer many different categories of reader.

Of interest too is the transcription of Costi’s rehearsal of Elgar’s In the South (Alassio) – his recording with the BSO appears to be temporarily unavailable – but I remain hopeful that it won’t be for long. Inevitably given the fluctuations of record company wiles these days, the discography serves as but a guide for what a collector might find – though no doubt the intrepid will find the listing of recordings made in Romania useful if visiting that glorious country.

So much of the time reading this wholeheartedly recommendable book has been accompanied by listening for me – both to Silvestri’s music in concert and Costi’s recordings as a conductor. Of available recordings, the knock-down bargain has to be the 10 CD set Constantin Silvestri: The Collection from Disky Classics (DB 707432) that retails at under £20.

I recommend the book without hesitation for countless reasons, not least because it opens new avenues of enquiry and illuminates a significant musician with generosity and affection. Now, given that recent years have seen recordings of music by the likes de Sabata, Weingartner and Furtwängler, surely someone will rise soon to Silvestri’s cause. It’s certainly about time – no, long overdue.

Evan Dickerson

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