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8.554721 - ENESCU: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2
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George Enescu (1881-1955)

String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2

The Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu may now be seen as the most important figure in the musical history of his native country. Born in Moldavia in 1881, he had his first violin lessons there from a gypsy violinist. On the advice of Eduard Caudella, a pupil of Vieuxtemps and professor at the Iaşi Conservatory, he was sent, at the age of seven, to the Conservatory in Vienna, where he was eventually taught by the younger Joseph Hellmesberger, taking counterpoint and subsequently composition lessons from Robert Fuchs. In 1893 he moved to Paris for further study as a violinist with Marsick and composition lessons from Massenet and then from Fauré at the Conservatoire, with important studies in counterpoint and fugue under André Gédalge. In Gédalge's class his contemporaries included Koechlin, Ravel, Roger-Ducasse and Florent Schmitt and other fellow-students included the pianist Alfred Cortot, who expressed his admiration of Enescu's ability as a pianist. In 1897 a concert of his work was given in Paris and by 1899, when he won the first violin prize at the Conservatoire, he was already known as a composer. His subsequent career brought him similar distinction both as a performer and as a conductor.

Although Enescu's activities were centred on Paris, he maintained his contact with Romania, returning home in regular summer visits. In 1904 he formed the relatively short-lived Enescu Quartet with Fritz Schneider, Henri Casadesus and Louis Fournier, but at the same time performed with other contemporaries of the highest distinction, including Casals, Thibaud, Casella, Cortot and, in private chamber music, at least, with Kreisler. The greatly respected older violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, for whom César Franck had written his Violin Sonata, dedicated to Enescu the third of his unaccompanied violin sonatas, the Sonate-Ballade. Meanwhile his international career as a violinist was developing. In Romania he did much to encourage younger musicians, through the Bucharest Conservatory and the Conservatory at Iaşi. He spent the war years largely in Romania, where he gave concerts for the wounded, once Romania had entered the war on the side of the Allies, and established the George Enescu Symphony Orchestra in 1917 in Iaşi from the musicians he could gather, now that Bucharest had been occupied by the Central Powers. With the end of the war he was able to resume his international career, generally keeping the summer months for composition, but the second war in 1939 confined him once more to Romania, now as the husband of the unstable Princess Maruca Cantacuzino, with whom he had enjoyed a happier relationship for some 25 years. After the war he returned to Paris and continued an international round of concerts and master classes, in spite of an illness that affected his hearing. The Communist régime at home and the abdication of the King, representative of a royal family to which Enescu had always been loyal, kept him abroad, although the new government would have welcomed the return of a figure of his stature. His final years in Paris were spent in poverty, exacerbated after a stroke in 1954.

Yehudi Menuhin, in his autobiographical Unfinished Journey, described the powerful impression that Enescu made on him, when, as a small child, he first saw him at a concert in San Francisco. He was later to become Enescu's pupil in Paris and has given testimony to the strong influence that Enescu had on his musical development. Other pupils included Arthur Grumiaux, Christian Ferras and Ida Haendel.

Enescu's String Quartet No.1 in E flat major was started in 1916, using some earlier material, continued in 1918, and completed at the end of 1920. It was dedicated to the Flonzelay Quartet, an ensemble established in 1902 by the banker Edward J. De Coppet and devoted exclusively to quartet performance. It was this quartet that gave the first performance of the work in 1921. The string quartet is a highly original and complex composition, in spite of the apparent simplicity of its opening, with a theme that is marked sotto voce and tranquillo, leading to a secondary theme in G minor. There are moments of great delicacy in the central section, which eventually builds to a dynamic climax with reminiscences of the first theme and motifs from the secondary theme. This leads to a much abridged recapitulation, when the first theme returns in a high register, marked delicatamente, reappearing once more as the movement draws to a close. There is a meditative mood in the second movement, as the direction Andante pensieroso suggests, and here, as elsewhere, there are clear thematic connections to the preceding movement. A predominant motif of this B major movement, in which the original key is soon modified, includes the interval of an augmented fourth, part of the opening theme, which is developed and varied as the movement proceeds. Mutes, which had been used in the hushed final section of the second movement, are removed for the scherzo, which, while it lacks a formal trio, brings a relaxation of tension and no direct return of the opening material. The last movement develops earlier motifs, at times contrapuntally, before moving to a theme and a series of variations, followed by a song-like melody that is to appear in various guises before the quartet ends.

The String Quartet No.2 in G major, which defies succinct description, was completed on 30th May 1951, but was the final form of a work that had been with Enescu for many years, certainly since 1920 and possibly earlier. It was dedicated to Madame Elisabeth Shurtleff Coolidge, better known as Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and was first performed by the Stradivarius Quartet in Boston in 1953, the year of her death. The quartet is motivically connected, as one motif leads to another. The first movement opens in serene tranquillity, its first thematic material giving way to a march-like section, then relaxing into the mood and pace of the opening. The instruments are muted in the second movement, set seemingly in E major and opened by the cello, recalling the first theme of the preceding movement, and here again one thing leads to another, as intervals and rhythms are explored in a closely woven texture, subdued in mood even in its approach to a dynamic climax. There is a mysterious passage played sul ponticello, near the bridge, while bowing on the fingerboard adds to the effect. A more forceful dynamic climax soon subsides, as the first violin is heard over tremolo second violin and viola. The calm is momentarily interrupted by the descending notes of the cello, which then proceeds, as before, to have the last word. The third movement is a scherzo, again closely related to what has passed, and leads to a final movement in a form resembling that of a rondo. It is, at all events, a movement of some variety, with suggestions of Romanian inspiration, much as Bartók had absorbed into his international musical language the spirit of Hungary.

Keith Anderson


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