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8.223144 - ENESCU: Suites Nos. 1 and 2 / Concert Overture

George Enescu (1881–1955)
Suite No. 1 in C Major, Opus 9 • Suite No. 2 in C Major, Opus 20 • Concert Overture, Opus 32


The Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu may now be seen as the most important figure in the musical history of his country. He was born in Moldavia in 1881 and had violin lessons there with a pupil of Vieuxtemps, before moving, at the age of seven, to the Conservatory in Vienna, where he studied with Joseph Hellmesberger. In 1893 he went to Paris for further study with Marsick and took composition lessons at the Conservatoire from Massenet and Fauré. In 1897 a concert of his work was given in Paris and by 1899, when he won the first violin prize of the Conservatoire, he was already known as a composer, his Poème Roumain having proved particularly successful. His subsequent career brought him similar distinction both as a performer and as a conductor.

Although Enescu’s career was centred on Paris, with the formation in 1904 of the Enescu Quartet, and increasing commitments both as an unwilling virtuoso and later as a teacher, he retained his connections with Romania and did much to encourage music there, through the Bucharest Conservatory and through the Conservatory at Iaşi, where he established the George Enescu Symphony Orchestra in 1917. His influence on younger Romanian composers was to remain considerable.

Yehudi Menuhin, in his autobiographical Unfinished Journey, has 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 was a remarkably versatile musician. He was a competent pianist, accompanying Thibaud in the first performance of his own Second Violin Sonata, and able to play all of Wagner from memory at the keyboard. In his phenomenal memory he held the complete works of Bach, and Menuhin describes how he was able to play Ravel’s new violin sonata from memory after two brief readings with the composer. His natural ability as a small child had led him to become a virtuoso violinist, but his interest was always rather in composition than performance, the second providing the means for the first. His life was divided between Paris and Romania, his character and his music presenting a similar contrast between cosmopolitan urbanity and the more passionate elements that were part of his Moldavian inheritance.

Enescu had won his early success with compositions of a pronounced national flavour. The Romanian Poem had made use of thematic material of clear national inspiration, while the two later rhapsodies were to make use of existing folk-themes of one sort or another. He was later to develop as a composer in a different direction, having made studies of traditional symphonic form in his four so-called “school” symphonies, works written in the 1890s. His musical language was to remain informed by the folk-music of Romania, but only after 1920 did he achieve a full synthesis of this national element with late romantic techniques of composition.

The Suite No. 1 in C Major, Opus 9, was completed in 1903. It opens with a Prélude á l’unisson, a strongly stated unison movement that is clearly Romanian in melodic inspiration. The widely spaced theme is accompanied, towards its ominous close, by the threatening roll of drums. This is followed by a slow Minuet that is a logical continuation of the first movement and by a more sombre Intermède, marked by the composer’s polyphonic treatment of thematic material, in which one melody is superimposed on another. The final movement is a re-assertion of life, a dance with something of the Gigue and of the Tarantelle about it.

The Suite No. 2, also in C Major, was completed in 1915 and first performed under the direction of the composer in Bucharest in the following year. Enescu takes as his model the Baroque suite, and shows his own mastery of counterpoint in the Overture, with its double fugue, handled with an assurance that led an early critic to remark on the influence of Bach, as well as a suggested debt to Beethoven in the Bourrée, cited as evidence of the composer’s relation with continuing classical musical traditions. The Sarabande is of a clearly Romanian cast and is followed by a Gigue of unusual metre that undergoes a more extended development than would have been usual in the earlier dance-form. There is a solemn Minuet, a nostalgic and expressive Aria and a final Bourrée treated in the manner of a symphonic finale, an ebullient rondo.

The Concert Overture, Opus 32, was completed in 1948. In an addition to the title it is described as “sur des themes dans le caractere populaire roumain”. The work belongs to the last stage of Enescu’s life, coming, as it does, between the Suite Villageoise of 1938 and the final Chamber Symphony of 1954. The work exemplifies many of the recognisable features of Enescu’s musical idiom. The central section is in a freer style of obvious popular Romanian character, the dramatic heart of a composition that, while drawing on national inspiration, and possibly from memories of childhood in Moldavia, avoids direct folk-song quotation. The Overture brings to an end in markedly different fashion a form of composition on which he had embarked with the Romanian Poem and the Romanian Rhapsodies.

Keith Anderson

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