The programme for the 26th edition of the George Enescu International Festival in Romania has just been announced. Founded in 1958, it is one of the largest and most prestigious classical music festivals in Europe. (It is organised under the direct patronage of the President of Romania himself.)

The Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest
© Flickr | Fusion-of-horizons

The 2023 festival runs from 27th August to 24th September (an opening Sunday, four weeks and four weekends), and can be divided into several distinct concert strands at different times of day (at 5pm, 8pm, 10.30pm, and additionally at 11am and 1pm on weekends).

With two or three concerts on weekdays, and five or six concerts on Saturdays and Sundays, the festival can be an overwhelming experience! There are simply too many concerts to cover all of them here, but we will highlight a few that whetted our appetite.

Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

After the opening Sunday night concert, traditionally performed by the George Enescu Philharmonic, the first Monday features two concerts worth attending. With the WDR Sinfonieorkester, Jörg and Carolin Widmann present two of his works for violin and orchestra. Also on the menu is an orchestral arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Clarinet Sonata, arranged and performed by Jörg, as well as Mendelssohn’s weighty Reformation Symphony. The WDR orchestra will return on Tuesday to perform Bartok’s Wooden Prince, alongside Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn arranged by Detlev Glanert.

Later on the first Monday, the festival’s venerable honorary chairman Zubin Mehta will conduct Verdi’s Otello in concert, with the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Soloists include Fabio Sartori and Anastasia Bartoli. Mehta will return on Tuesday to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony.

The Labèque duo perform with the Czech Philharmonic
© Festival Internacional de Santander

A short series by the Czech Philharmonic will be worth checking out on the following days, with highlights including the Lebèque duo joining for Bryce Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra on Wednesday, and Enescu’s powerful Vox Maris on Thursday (in a programme also featuring Beethoven’s First Symphony).

Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra will also appear in the first week, performing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on Wednesday, and Messiaen’s extraordinary Turangalîla-Symphonie (paired with Enescu’s Voix de la Nature) on Thursday. Fans of 20th-century music would do well to stay on until Friday, when Matthias Pinscher and Ensemble InterContemporain will perform the box set of Ligeti Concertos – the sensational trio of late concertos for piano, violin, horn, and the eerie concerto for cello from the 1960s.

The first weekend has a cavalcade of concerts, featuring the Orchestra Nationale du Capitole de Toulouse, the Cameristi della Scala, and three Romanian orchestras. Chamber music fans should check out Ensemble Zefiro’s performance of Mozart’s Gran Partita, and Fazıl Say’s piano recital on Sunday night.

Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Zürich
© Daniel Dittus

Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Zurich have had success this season with their Bruckner, and they will appear at the Enescu Festival on the second Monday and Tuesday, capping off their visit with Bruckner’s Ninth. Lahav Shani, who we interviewed in November, will also appear the same week, with soloists Gil Shaham (in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, paired with Mahler 1), and Alexandre Kantorow (in Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, paired with Brahms 1).

Cellist Benjamin Kruithof, winner of George Enescu Competition 2022
© Alex Damian

Two chamber orchestra concerts are worth looking out for in the second week. On Thursday the East-West Chamber Orchestra will appear with cellist Benjamin Kruithof, winner of the 2022 Enescu Competition. Haydn’s first Cello Concerto is to be paired with chamber symphonies from Weinberg and Shostakovich. The Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra appears the day after, with renowned French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, in a programme featuring Bartok’s Piano Concerto no. 3 and Ligeti’s Ramifications, as well as string orchestra music of Enescu’s.

The second weekend has another tranche of concerts, including visits from the Gothenburg Symphony and several chamber and choral events worth investigating. Another highlight will be the visit from the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Jakub Hrůša, with soloist Igor Levit for Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2. On Monday the Viennese will be back with music from Enescu, Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen Suite and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, performing with the CBSO
© Hannah Fathers

On the third Monday, we see another of the operatic concert-stagings the festival has to offer, with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with the Cluj-Napoca Hungarian Opera. The third week also sees a visit from Patricia Kopatchinskaja and her adventurous chamber orchestra the Camerata Bern. In two unusual programmes, the first mixing medieval and Renaissance music with Schubert, and the second focusing on 20th-century music, these concerts will be well worth attending.

Tuesday 12th September sees the third opera of the festival, a semi-staged version of Britten’s Billy Budd, with the George Enescu Philharmonic to be conducted by Hannu Lintu. The rarely staged opera (partly due to its being all-male, given the nautical setting) features a large cast of well-regarded young singers, including Peter Wedd and Ville Rusanen.

Vladimir Jurowski
© Drew Kelley

Vladimir Jurowski will lead a visit from the Bayerische Staatsoper over the third Wednesday and Thursday, their first concert featuring Mahler’s Fourth, and their second culminating in Berg’s Violin Concerto with Vilde Frang, and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. Friday will be a chance to hear a period Baroque ensemble – relatively rare at this festival – with Philippe Herreweghe’s visit with the Collegium Vocale Gent to sing Bach’s Mass in B minor.

A highlight of the third weekend will be Ligeti’s zany (and horrifying) Bruegel-inspired opera Le Grand Macabre, performed in concert with conductor Arnaud Arbet. The same Sunday – if you’re not exhausted by the Ligeti – will be a rare chance to see Chinese composer Tan Dun conduct his own music, in his work Nu Shu for harp and orchestra, with harpist Xavier de Maistre.

Perhaps the standout event of the whole festival will occur in the fourth week, on Wednesday 20 September, when the Orchestre Nationale de France, together with Le Balcon, Romanian National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and the Romanian Youth Orchestra, will mount Messiaen’s Saint François d'Assise. Maxime Pascal of Le Balcon will conduct, and Thomas Oliemans will sing St Francis. A gargantuan work of huge spiritual depth, rarely mounted in any form, this will be an event not to miss.

This preview simply cannot be large enough to convey the sheer amount of music on offer at 2023’s Enescu festival. Attendees will need to follow Billy Budd’s example – in making sure they don’t drown!

This preview was sponsored by Artexim – George Enescu International Festival