Landmark of Romanian musical culture in the 20th century and highly esteemed by George Enescu himself, Constantin Silvestri was born in Bucharest on May 13, 1913. Showing excellent piano and organ skills at only 6, he trained at the Târgu Mureş Conservatory under Zeno Vancea (composition) and in 1930 entered the Conservatory of Music in Bucharest, where he studied with Mihail Jora (harmony), Dimitrie Cuclin (composition), Constantin Brăiloiu (history of music) and Florica Musicescu (piano). He made his conducting debut (without having taken formal lessons) that same year, leading the Symphonic Radio Orchestra in Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and his own Prelude and fugue.
Aged 20, Silvestri was already a master of the piano, playing successfully at the Radio Concert Hall and the Romanian Athenaeum and “duelling” with Dinu Lipatti, as records musicologist Viorel Cosma. In 1937 he won first prize in the Enescu Composition Competition, and in 1940, following his conducting debut abroad, Budapest press compared him with Arthur Nikisch and Arturo Toscanini.
After the war, Constantin Silvestri was named director of the Bucharest Philharmonic (1947) and of the Romanian Opera (1953), then principal conductor and artistic director of the Romanian Radio Orchestra (1958-1959). 1958 remains the peak year of Silvestri’s Romanian career, marking the local premiere of Enescu’s masterpiece Oedip in the first edition of the International Enescu Festival, a master performance (which Communist authorities however found confusing because of the “mystical” direction) boasting David Ohanesian in the lead role.
In 1959, tired and disgusted by the political naggings, Silvestri moves to Paris, touring Australia and conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1961, subsequent to a 1957 collaboration with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, he settles in the UK, where he would produce the most substantial international component of his discography. All the while, the Communist state seizes his house on 19 Paris Street, Silvestri’s wife returning to their apartment on Victoriei Avenue with the family’s art pieces and valuable painting collection. During the successive inventories run by the Department of State Security, many of those painting disappeared without trace.
Educated exclusively on Romanian soil, Silvestri is remembered as an authoritarian, meticulous conductor, the annotations on his scores in a variety of colours. Just as carefully and painstakingly prepared, his concerts were an ever-fresh experience even when they proposed one and the same program.
As a composer, Silvestri left behind a relatively limited catalogue, about twenty-eight works representing, says composer Octavian Nemescu, “a Bartók-Enescu synthesis with the imprint of a personal, quite distinctive style”. Silvestri’s compositional language is indeed one profoundly original, reflective of his thoroughness and his attention for formal construction and expressive contents.
Before leaving Romania in 1959, Constantin Silvestri recorded some twenty LPs featuring works he would never again put on disc. He was awarded first prize and the Grand Prix du Disque by Académie Charles Cros, the latter for Enescu’s Decet. In 2013, on the occasion of Silvestri’s birth centennial, EMI released his complete recordings in 15-CD set.
Principal conductor, from 1961, of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Constantin Silvestri is credited with having raised the ensemble to international class and fame. He died of cancer on February 23, 1969 in London and was buried, as he wished, in Saint Peter’s Church cemetery in Bournemouth. His tombstone reads “The Maestro of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra 1961-1969. An outstanding musician and a remarkable man”.