Full marks to Gabriel Bebeşelea and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for originality in the programming of this concert, entitled rather grandly “A Voyage of Invention”. Using Mozart’s popular Symphony no. 41 in C major as the crowd-pleaser, they filled the rest of the space with interesting and comparatively rarely performed works: George Enescu’s Orchestral Suite no. 2 in C major, Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto no. 3 in B Minor and Ciprian Porumbescu’s Ballade for Violin and Orchestra. Bebeşelea, making his debut with the RPO, is currently Principal Conductor of the Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra and his facility with the music of his country is clear to see.

Gabriel Bebeșelea © Ionut Macri
Gabriel Bebeșelea
© Ionut Macri

The Enescu is a piece full of life and it is to be regretted that it does not receive more outings. It’s an odd work, highly flavoursome with moments of real dynamism, but the circumstances of its composition – in the middle of the First World War when the score was evacuated from Bucharest and not returned until 1924 – and Enescu’s own departure from that phase of his music has largely consigned it to the fringes of performance. Bebeşelea brought a warm bustle to the opening Overture and real colour to the gypsy-like Sarabande. The rather ponderous Menuet grave was given heft by the brass, underlain by rather glitzy strings. The great virtue of Bebeşelea’s interpretation was the care with which the folksy elements of the work were brought out and gently textured, though one was left feeling that a sense of overall unity and coherence was lacking in the piece.

The Saint-Saëns is a work that one can admire in parts, but is diminished in places by a lack of musical depth. Composed for star violinist Pablo de Sarasate in 1880, it is full of opportunities for the soloist to show off and has a deeply beautiful second movement, but can be distinctly workmanlike in its first. The soloist here was Alexandru Tomescu whose approach was at times underwhelming; technically, he dealt with the formidable demands of the first movement with skill and was obviously comfortable with the piece, but he brought limited electricity and confidence to the performance, often playing into the orchestra rather than to the audience. Likewise in the second movement, a gentle barcarolle that wafts from violin to woodwind, the playing was sweet and extremely deft, but lacked that sense of plangent emotion that makes a great performance. Tomescu seemed to warm up for the dazzling finale, bringing a sense of flair and bravura. The RPO gave a strong performance, with particular credit to the fragrant woodwind performance in the second movement and the robust brass in the chorale.

Porumbescu is hardly a staple feature in any orchestra Western orchestra; a classic case of a talented (and prolific) composer cut down far too young, he died of tuberculosis aged just 29. His Ballad is probably his best known work outside Romania and shows a composer of advanced abilities deeply in thrall to the music of his country. Tomescu returned to the stage retaining the flair of the concerto’s finale for a glossy, boldly phrased interpretation, with Bebeşelea drawing a deeply felt, nuanced performance from the orchestra, judged to perfect degree against the soloist.

Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony was perhaps Bebeşelea’s weakest interpretation of the evening. Energetic as the performance was, it felt flabby across the movements, often mono-textural with little definition between the sections. The first movement was taken briskly and with verve, but the strings cried out for a little filigree to balance against the vigorous brass. The Menuetto felt a little flat, lacking that certain balletic bounce that the waltz-like element calls for. The finale was boisterous, the woodwind cutting through against the rather heavy strings, but the tempo was appropriately judged and Bebeşelea brought the symphony to a rousing end.

***11