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Various composers & works
Bournemouth Symphony
Vienna Philharmonic
Paris Conservatory Orchestra
London Philharmonic
Philharmonia Orchestra

Constantin Silvestri

Disky- 707432(CD)
No Reference Recording


Pssst! Have I got a bargain for you. The Dutch Disky label has released a 10-disc set of licensed EMI recordings by Constantin Silvestri, one of the best of the legions of now-forgotten conductors of the 1950s and '60s who would be superstars today. The Romanian conductor moved to the West in 1956, signed with EMI, and swiftly established a reputation as an outstanding interpreter of Romantic and early modern music. He guest-conducted leading British and European ensembles and in 1960 was named music director of the provincial Bournemouth Symphony, a post he held until his death at 55 of liver cancer in 1968. British critics were cool to a foreigner taking over one of their orchestras (remember, this was the 1960s, before the British musical establishment reluctantly came to terms with the influx of foreign talent). They also found him too free an interpreter and carped at his rhetorical pauses, dynamic and tempo contrasts, and the unbridled emotionalism he brought to his repertoire. All of these traits of course make for compulsive listening as yesterday's "mannerisms" become today's antidote to boredom.

In his notes for Silvestri's performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony on Testament 1129, Alan Sanders writes that Silvestri was "seldom satisfied" with his early EMI recordings, which were made hastily, included "the wrong repertoire", and utilized "the wrong orchestra" for specific works. We hear some of those self-criticisms vindicated on these 10 discs, but we also hear some astonishing music-making. Even when we're aware of such deficiencies as the blatty trumpet at the opening of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien with the Bournemouth band, or a Parisian orchestra missing the Slavic tang of Dvorák's Slavonic Dances, we're amazed at how good those ensembles sound under Silvestri's baton. Why EMI chose to record Silvestri's Ravel with the orchestras of Bournemouth and Vienna while taping his Brahms in Paris defies understanding today. And the only possible explanation for recording an orchestral showpiece like Scheherazade in Bournemouth is that the tale of Sinbad the sailor-man would go better at a seaside resort. But unless you're obsessive about orchestral details, you'll come away from those mismatches thinking about how good the performances are and how Silvestri was able to impose his will and his vision upon players better suited to other kinds of music--always a sign of a great conductor. And when he's got the crack Philharmonia in its heyday to work with, we get a virtuoso conductor matched with an orchestra worthy of him, as demonstrated by the spectacular 1958 Liszt Tasso, with its deep colors and blend of delicacy and power, still ranking among the finest Liszt performances ever recorded.

Short showpiece works abound here, no doubt chosen by EMI to suit Silvestri's great gifts as a colorist. Disky includes two versions of Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice, from Paris (released 1958) and Bournemouth (1968), the later one marginally swifter and more menacing, demonstrating how much improved the orchestra sounds after seven years of Silvestri's leadership. There's a scintillating Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 here too, along with the Ravel Rhapsody espagnole, both from Vienna. Although they're fine performances, they pale in comparison to Silvestri's mid-1950s versions with the crack Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon (3514), the Enescu one of the all-time great orchestral recordings, coupled with a matchless Lalo Cello Concerto with André Navarra.

One of the traits I associate with great conductors is their ability to elevate "minor" works to profound listening experiences--masters like Toscanini, Beecham, and Stokowski did it all the time. So, apparently, did Silvestri, thanks to his gift for conveying atmosphere. In this set, Saint-Saëns' Dance macabre is truly macabre, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien is drenched with Mediterranean sun, and Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun manages to be both diaphanous and sturdier than usual, while Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia emerges with a luminosity that defies explanation.

Silvestri was also masterful in the big works. His Dvorák Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 are dramatic and propulsive without yielding poetry and lyricism. The opening of his Eighth, for example, is among the most evocative (compare Ivan Fischer's abrupt conducting of that passage in his recent Philips recording) while the way he lends a fragility to the opening theme of the fourth movement sets it off in dramatic contrast to the following dance. Given Silvestri's penchant for color and drama, you expect his Shostakovich Fifth to be first-rate and it is; I've rarely heard the last part of the Largo played with such shattering impact, with its grief-laden double basses and the slow fade to a barely consoling silence. Silvestri out-Brits the Brits with a great Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia (no, his spectacular Elgar In the South, once available on a double-disc EMI Silvestri "Profiles" set is not included here). He's wonderful in French music too, including a dramatically coherent Franck Symphony, upon whose craggy cyclic rocks many a conductor (and audience) has crashed. And he brings us one of the great recorded La Mer's, a sea-borne drama rather than the preciously placid lake view we often hear. His gift for color also stood him well in modern works. EMI was too cautious to venture too far into the depths of contemporary music so Silvestri recorded "safe" works like his biting Bartók Divertimento, a starkly incisive Symphony in Three Movements, and an appropriately multihued Song of the Nightingale. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), the composer of the latter two masterpieces, is identified by Disky as Fyodor Stravinsky (1843-1902), the eminent operatic basso who was his father.

EMI's sonics from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s were first-rate and Disky's transfers convey that. Some of the material is in mono (EMI was one of the industry laggards in switching to stereo) but most is in stereo, wide-ranging and impactful. No notes, but each CD is housed in a slip-in cardboard jacket, the back of which has full track and timing listings, performers, and, in minuscule print, the original copyright dates that tally with release, not recording dates. Oh yes, I started out by promising a bargain. My set was liberated from New York's East Village Tower Records store. Cost? Under $50, or $5 per disc. A similar price was listed on Amazon when I checked. For that, you get outstanding performances (not a really weak one in the bunch) by a great--and greatly underrated--conductor. Go! Now!

--Dan Davis

David Allen Wehr (piano)
Connoisseur Society

Alexander Melnikov (piano); Elena Brilova (soprano)
Harmonia Mundi

Bohuslav Matoušek (violin); Karel Košárek (piano)
Czech Philharmonic
Christopher Hogwood

Jesús Morales (cello)
Philharmonia Bulgarica
Jamie Morales

National Orchestra of Belgium
Walter Weller
Fuga Libera

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