George Enescu’s magnum opus, his opera Oedipe, occupied its composer as long from conception to first performance as Wagner took in writing his Ring cycle, from the Romanian's first sketches in 1910 to the work's Paris première in 1936. But Wagner, for all his extra-mural activities, didn’t have to weave his composition time around full-time careers as international virtuoso violinist, teacher, conductor and pianist as Enescu did. The result is by no means as long as the Ring, though his librettist, Edmond Fleg, had first come up with a two-evening draft, immediately rejected by the composer, but it is ambitious in scale, a true birth-to-death piece, laying out the full tragedy of Oedipus’ life story over some three hours of music. And what music! A fusion of French, German and Romanian traditions, it is ultimately unclassifiable, ranging from lush late-Romanticism to music that seems on the cusp of experimental modernism, employing a huge orchestra, multi-divided choirs and a cast of 14, if one includes step-outs from the chorus.

Vladimir Jurowski and Paul Gay © Allex Max
Vladimir Jurowski and Paul Gay
© Allex Max

Oedipe is no longer a stranger to British shores, following last year’s Royal Opera production (its UK première was at an Edinburgh Festival concert in 2002). The impact of that staging was visual as much as aural, but in allowing us to concentrate on the music and drama alone, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opener of a concert performance proved every bit as powerful an experience. In collaboration with the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, where these same forces performed Oedipe earlier in the month, conductor Vladimir Jurowski brought together a cast combining favourite British singers with lesser-known voices from eastern Europe and beyond – a true pan-European enterprise.

Heading this cast was French bass-baritone Paul Gay, who conveyed Oedipus’ tortured soul with dramatic intensity and unflagging tone. His scene with the ever-visceral singing of Felicity Palmer as his adopted mother Mérope was a highlight of the evening, raising the dramatic temperature in what can seem a static, even statuesque work. (The one criticism to make of this performance is of the decision to have singers walking on and off the stage for each and every appearance, even if it was just for a single line, rather than having them sitting in a row front-stage – it undoubtedly added movement, but not purposeful movement related to the drama.)

Willard White’s Tiresias, the blind man who sees the truth, will be remembered for his baleful, despairing ‘Hélas’ as he confronted Oedipus in Act III; Christopher Purves sang a forceful Créon; and Graham Clark ran the whole gamut of detailed vocal characterisation as the Shepherd. The eloquent Ruxandra Donose made the most of her two scenes as Jocasta – a potent foretaste of her Baden-Baden Kundry in March; Gabriela Iştoc’s touching Antigone revealed an appealing, open soprano sound; and it was a treat indeed to hear Ildikó Komlósi as a marvellously other-worldly Sphinx, complete with atmospheric amplification – her riddle scene is surely one of the most remarkable and original creations in 20th-century opera. Completing the main cast were a trio of impressive basses in Mischa Schelomianski (High Priest), In Sung Sim (Phorbas – the only cast member who also sang in the ROH production) and Maxim Mikhailov (Watchman), a pithy Laius from tenor Marius Vlad Budoiu and a sonorous Theseus from baritone Boris Pinkhasovich.

The esteemed Romanian Radio Children’s Choir made its mark in all of a couple of minutes’ singing and antique cymbal tinkling to cap the triumphal closing of Act 2, though the main Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic had much more to do in various configurations on and off stage, and similarly made a positive impression, including from the step-out solos as Theban women.

But the real aural image to take away from this concert performance was the originality and resourcefulness of Enescu’s orchestral writing. Employing a string section too big to fit into any opera-house pit alongside the requisite wind, brass and percussion, and maintaining tension across all four acts, Jurowski drew out every remarkable sonority in the score. From the delectable fluting of the shepherd’s piping and the Arcadian dances to the thunderous music for Laius’ murder, from the sepulchral yet unearthly sounds for the Sphinx to the golden glow that suffuses the final scene of Oedipus’s death and transfiguration, the LPO musicians really surpassed themselves in playing of élan, subtlety and virtuosity.