> Interviews

Archived : 2024 | 2023 | 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 |

In Memoriam – Organist Michael Rădulescu: An Interview with Associate Professor Dr. Dan Racoveanu

Wednesday, 27 March 2024 , ora 11.01

On the 20th of March, you held a concert in memory of organist, composer, conductor, and your beloved mentor, Michael Rădulescu. It has been three months since his passing. Could we consider this concert related to the Early Music Day, which has been always celebrated worldwide on the 21st of March?

Absolutely. In fact, the concert is titled Bach's Day, a tradition already established at the National University of Music in Bucharest. There couldn't have been a better occasion to honor Professor Michael Rădulescu, a truly remarkable figure. I had the chance to receive a scholarship for six consecutive years at the Bach Academy in Switzerland, in a city called Porrentruy, right in the French-speaking area. This is where I directly met the master, a world-class organist and, as you said, composer, conductor, and also a very important educator. He was born in 1943 in Romania and studied the organ under Victor Bicherich's guidance and the art of composition together with MihailJora. He came from a family of musicians. His father, NicoaleRădulescu, was a harpsichordist at the "George Enescu" Philharmonic Orchestra, while his German-born mother was a singer. In the '60s, he attended a course in Salzburg and continued his studies in Vienna, where he studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky and organ with Anton Heiller. Even as a young man in the '60s, an Italian chronicle described him as a top-class performer, whose maturity contrasted with his very young age. He was a specialist in Bach's music, which he considered (in a '90s interview) as "the Bach moment" because during this moment both horizontal and vertical aspects are equally important, in other words, the polyphonic element, the counterpoint, the linearity hold the same value as the vertical harmony. This unique moment in music history will definitely not be repeated.

Yes, Michael Rădulescu recorded Bach's complete organ works,completed in 2004, conducted all his oratorios, the B minor Mass, the most important Cantatas, The Art of Fugue, and The Musical Offering. Could you outline his approach to deciphering and interpreting this vast musical heritage?

Although the Academy focused solely on organ, and all the students were organists, after a full day of classes, there were evening rehearsals where the organists either sang together or played the organ, providing continuo. I also had the chance to play under his baton in the Christmas Oratorio, providing continuo on the organ. Why? Because he considered these two sides, Bach's secular and sacred halves, absolutely inseparable. Through the way he explained all the symbolism found in Bach's work, you ultimately reached the conclusion that his secular music is still sacred because all these motifs circulate at the level of secular music as well. He was also very knowledgeable about ancient languages. He composed several scores based on texts by Michelangelo or Dante. He delivered his lectures in four languages. He spoke in German, French, Italian - because Switzerland entails such diversity, and he occasionally added a few words in English, as there were often students from Canada or Japan. What was extraordinary, and why I want to emphasize his erudition is that in each language, he said something different because he addressed a culturally specific space for that language. I had the chance to jot down his statements in various other languages, and my colleagues often asked me if he said anything new in a language other than the one they knew.

What would you say was the cornerstone of his musical pedagogy?

This mattered tremendously to me and has been a guiding principle throughout my career because I consider artistic education very challenging. You can't never tell a student "Do it like me" or "Do it this way." Doing so would crush their personality - they would become imitators. The most important thing is for them to find, to rediscover their own musicality and their own path. He would say - you can do it like this, or you can do it differently. So-and-so would say it like this, someone else would say it differently. He would listen to us, and then he would very modestly say: "With your permission, I'll also perform this piece for you." And of course, that moment was more important than any words. He was a constant guide, teaching students to fish, not giving them fish. He was a remarkable composer, composing chamber music and vocal chamber music. He composed masses and many works for the organ. In his music, we see influences mainly from Hindemith, Ligeti, Messiaen, less from Bach, so he was more of a theorist and interpreter of Bach's music. When composing, he certainly looked towards the great composers of the 20th century.

I was actually going to ask, which of these components - organist, composer, conductor, teacher - predominated in his career?

It's very hard to say. For me, he particularly influenced me as an educator, greatly as an organist, enormously as a conductor. What I want to highlight is the balance he had between erudition and the freshness of interpretation. I think this is very important because vast erudition can somewhat harm and make the performer a bit dry, less fresh, less lively. Yet, he managed to combine and create a balance between these two elements. When you are a performer, as Daniel Barenboim said - you practically have to forget everything you've learned when you're on stage and perform as if you're playing that piece for the first time, discovering it. To maintain this curiosity, ingenuity, and unpredictability.

How would you characterize the personality of this maestro who focused, for the most part, on the Western audience throughout his career and as such is so little known in Romania, beyond his erudition?

Unfortunately, he never returned in the country. I was glad to meet older acquaintances who managed to hear him play at the Athenaeum, and they told me - because this means more than what you read - how he would come on stage as a young man and play completely from memory. He had only one notebook where he noted the organ registrations because this is somewhat harder to remember, so his erudition probably followed this temperament of interpretation. I can only say that he was a very modest person, and his modesty was all the more remarkable given his remarkable erudition. For instance, when a student came up with somewhat less musical or less appropriate ideas, he was extremely subtle in his remarks, gently ironic, and would say very modestly: "This idea is not quite suitable." Sometimes these were ideas that needed to be rejected much more vehemently, but he didn't need to do so. He managed to convince you without imposing anything. You were faced with a picture that you couldn't deny or refuse, absolutely remarkable. Regarding how Bach encrypted his messages, he made us discover, read between the lines, things that were truly remarkable, almost unbelievable. I have often said that if he hadn't been a musician, he would have been a great mathematician. That's Bach for you. Or at least a great chess master. It's about the same combination of a brilliant, albeit very sharp, reasoning and an extraordinary sensitivity.

It is noted on the Bach Cantatas website: "For Michael Rădulescu, music primarily has a spiritual and religious nature."

Yes. As I mentioned, you ended up being convinced that Bach's secular music, in his case, was not secular. In fact, in everything that was happening at that time, there was no copyright - it was common to change the destination of works, to self-copy works, to give them another destination. Bach never secularized sacred music, never turned it into a secular cantata or another secular work. Always, influences and enrichments were from the secular towards the sacred. This clearly shows that his entire life and creation were under the sign of divinity.

Then perhaps his book on the B minor Mass and the second of the two Passions, published in 2013, should be translated into Romanian. It would be a necessary endeavor.

Many things should be translated into Romanian, starting with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and many great musicians who changed the course of music at the end of the 20th century, without a doubt.

Which pages would be most relevant for our listening?

I would suggest two of Bach's Chorales recorded by Michael Rădulescu. I was pleased to find these recordings on the Porrentruy organ - it is an exceptional instrument, a copy of a Silbermann organ but built in the 1980s, which has a sensitivity, a specific beauty... which offers you some possibilities... so the organ was played 24 hours a day. It was truly challenging to find it available even for an hour of study at night. You were lucky if this happened from 00:00 to 01:00 or from 05:00 to 06:00. It was harder between 02:00 and 03:00, but it was equally busy at night because practically the instrument taught you how to approach it, how to touch it, this touch that many works of the time talk about - L'Art de toucher le clavecin by Couperin, or the fact that Toccata comes from toccare, which means touching the instrument to make it sound. This touch made us hear more than we heard before working with Professor Rădulescu because he always talked about the organ's air, which is very similar to the Holy Spirit's breath, and you shouldn't force it but guide it towards the organ's pipes. He insisted on this touch, which had to be extremely delicate and controlled. This offers the expressiveness of an organ, especially of an exceptionally quality organ. The organ is made by Jürgen Ahrend, a very important German organ builder, who went to Germany and copied not only the exact dimensions and materials but also the spirit of Gottfried Silbermann, capturing these in an organ that is absolutely remarkable.

I understand it was his favorite organ.

He told us about the instruments Bach had at his disposal and especially what he would have wanted because we know from his letters and reviews that he was actually much more famous as an organist than as a composer - it's hard to believe, and he was often called to inaugurate a restored or newly built organ, to give a lecture on what should be modified, what should be improved in that instrument. This way, we can get a fairly complete idea of what Bach's ideal instrument meant. It's very hard to find a single organ that encompasses, embraces the entire ideal Bach had. It is evident that he transcended the boundaries of the musical instrument. The instrument clearly transcends Bach's creation, and we clearly see this in The Art of Fugue, his last work, in which he didn't even specify the instrument. It is one of Michael Rădulescu's favorite organs (the organ at Porrentruy), and this clearly shows why he chose this organ to record pages from Bach's creation.

Interview by Marina Nedelcu
Translated by >b>Marian-Cătălin Niculăescu,
University of Bucharest, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, MTTLC, year I
Corrected by Silvia Petrescu