GEORGE GEORGESCU

1887-1964

Some years ago I bought a history of the New York Philharmonic (then Philharmonic Symphony) and the only conductor listed therein I’d never heard of was a Rumanian with the euphonious but stuttery name of George Georgescu. GG’s musicmaking remained a mystery for several decades until I chanced to find a CD devoted to this maestro conducting a program of Richard Strauss. The booklet illustration suggested a French politician, dignified and intellectual, pocket handkerchief flying in a nod to the ways of the boulevardier, and the notes informed us that Georgescu, originally like Toscanini, Barbirolli and Hans Kindler a cellist, had been mentored by Strauss himself and became a pupil of the great Nikisch, as much a magnet for young conductors in the early twentieth century as Alice Waters for Californian chefs two or three generations later.

Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel had figured in Georgescu’s New York engagement in the Twenties (he seems to have turned up in Philadelphia in 1960 as well) and there it was on this intriguing CD, recorded live in Poland in 1956 with the Bucharest Philharmonic, well actually the Bucharest George Enescu Philharmonic. Verging perhaps on the precious now and then, this was still an impressive Till, elegant, fond, transparent. Sly little rubati told us Georgescu could slide gently off a tempo as if it were an unintimidating Balkan log. Death and Transfiguration, done for the Prague Radio in ’54 with the Czech Philharmonic, proved a catalog of dangerous delights. Beginning with the sort of inflection that suggests utter exhaustion. The syncopated-&-tripleted strings of the first page, pp con sordini says the score, almost die out, virtually killing the music’s endangered protagonist (notice, by the way, that in the fifth bar Strauss skips a heartbeat so to speak with a longer rest than the many preceding). Then the lovely oboe solo after Letter B, very tender says Strauss, comes on in a continuing atmosphere of artful hesitation, the CPO’s first oboe keeping the dynamic lid well on and refusing absolutely to rush. Logically enough – although I imagine one could argue otherwise — Georgescu makes a very interesting distinction between the oboe’s pp sehr zart and the first flute’s answering pp dolce, the latter translated, as if this were the dying man’s nurse in freshly laundered white, into a fruitier, healthier sound. Perhaps Georgescu’s thought process hit on the fact that the second flute, soon entering the sickroom under a long note from flute no. 1, is marked just plain piano!

With the giant whack of the allegro molto agitato Georgescu’s strings positively ooze from the depths, the music boiling up with a tension suggesting the great god Furtwaengler or the under-rated Kletzki. And when it diminuendos to the cradle song of Strauss’ meno mosso (p dolce here) the lead flute continues Georgescu’s program of airiness and asymmetry, playing with a frail vibrance, the sound fascinatingly veiled as if behind a curtain, or the aural equivalent of the sedated. Enough, in short, to make one yearn for more Georgescu. Wagner. Mahler. Beethoven. Quite missing, alas – but maybe out there on the web . . . ? Hello, a miracle, the post is bringing me from the snows of Vermont a set of Beethoven symphonies and overtures by our interesting Rumanian. The package is open and here’s the Coriolan overture for a start. Ten out of ten! Pathos, breadth and clarity immediately register, the distinguished gent presiding over his crew of Rumanians is clearly in total command. He signals a wonderful compassion in the second theme, an elegant desperation worthy of T.S. Eliot in the development, he gives us a smooth and touching largamente ride overall. Comrade Nikisch would approve of this sensuous and emotion-savvy performance, sans aucun doute.

The Eroica is pitched at a relaxed hub tempo, with a questioning aura as if perhaps this is the sinfonia eroica perduta. But Georgescu is not lost. Defiance sets in with the famous six chords near exposition’s close. Note the echoes of Furtwaengler in pensive early measures of the development rather rudely awakened by the ensuing fortissimo – from which point the luminous clarity of Beethoven’s contesting upper (busy bee) and lower (rumbling) strings is strikingly felicitous in Georgescu’s hands. With the succeeding funeral march characteristic notes of hesitation and defiance are struck early on. Overall this is a most stately dirge, a seriously slow base tempo maintained or virtually so from minor well into the major section to come, resulting in a near-18 minute timing. Then in the finale the ritenuto-ed and dignifiedly choked-up delivery of the pages following the poco andante oboe scena is not only original but astounding.

Also original: Georgescu’s avuncular allegretto for the first movement allegro con brio of Beethoven’s First, a tempo with a cozy and august grip to it. And marvel at the introduction to his Beethoven Fourth, moving at a tempo so slow, dogged and wary it seems to match perfectly the progress of a prisoner, on all fours one supposes, through a meticulously tunneled and absolutely unofficial exit from his place of incarceration. A Florestan left over from Fidelio perhaps? Or is the image — or how about a film score? — The Creation, murky preparations succeeded at Beethoven’s eventual fortissimo by a blaze of LIGHT! In any case the succeeding allegro vivace could scarcely be chirpier, Nature is having a ball. But the second movement, a great Beethoven adagio that can be read as a love song, Georgescu casts as an ultra-slow and striding marcia funebre, as if it were a varied echo of the Eroica’s great dirge. I also like the comically tenacious clocktick of the second movement of the Eighth: Georgescu has landed in cloud-cuckoo land for sure. Then comes Mr. Speed: the engagingly urgent first movement of the Ninth is a treno rapido, one, though, that brakes for curves. The beginning of the slow movement is halting, rhetorical yet confiding, summoned by a master in the art of multiple suggestion plying his gramophonic trade in this crazy world of Music, “that spectral alternative to language” as one of my favorite writers puts it. As for Georgescu’s Pastoral Symphony: when has the slow movement floated on such a cushion of drowsiness, an enchanting Beethovenian anaesthesia. While the post is piling up on the front hall floor at home!

And we’re left to wonder why this conductor of such obvious charisma and daring isn’t mentioned in the same breath as old Nikisch and Furtwaengler. Quirks of geography and politics, somewhat. Rumania for starters is far to the East. Since the country’s masters during World War II were Nazis Georgescu opted to play ball with them to protect his orchestra; for this the succeeding Communists banned him from public appearances for a number of years. An echo of the ousted Mengelberg! But exile seems not to have impaired in any way the finesse and spot-on drama of Georgescu on his stand.

. . . Meanwhile as our encyclopedic hotbed of conductorial decision-making, nuance-foraging, passion-gathering and so on proceeds I’ve come across a delightful clipping, a budding conductor in San Francisco remarking that “conductors are detectives, looking for little clues as to what the composer wants us to do.” Those clues are often not spelled out, hence the need for Poirots of the podium! . . . And who was it who said that “style (as of conductors) is not imposed on subject matter (the music), but arrives from it.” Think upon it.