About this Recording
8.572120 - ENESCU, G.: Piano Sonata No. 1 / Suite No. 2 (Varga)

George Enescu (1881–1955)
Piano Music


In the vastness of space somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, there exists one particular lump of matter among many thousands of other similar lumps that orbit the sun. Formally known as Asteroid 9493, this celestial object also has the rather more memorable name of George Enescu. Following the centuries-old tradition of naming cosmic things after well-known people, scientists commemorated Romania’s most famous musical son by adding his name to a diverse list of composers such as Donizetti, Satie and Prokofiev, who are similarly honoured in astronomical nomenclature.

On the terrestrial plane, too, Enescu’s memory has also been celebrated; his soulful face has appeared on Romania’s postage stamps and banknotes, and his name is now officially used to designate both his native commune of Liveni and the international airport at Bačau. Yet despite enjoying such general recognition, this man whom Pablo Casals described as ‘the most amazing musician since Mozart’ remains surprisingly neglected.

George (Gheorghe) Enescu was born in 1881 at Liveni Vîrnav in the north of the newly formed Romania, not far from Austrian-administered Bukovina and Russian-administered Bessarabia. The Turks had retreated from the area only a few years earlier, and there were strong influences from the various Christian churches—Orthodox, Catholic and Unitarian—as well as from the large Jewish and Gypsy populations. Out of necessity, the shopkeepers and traders in that part of south-eastern Europe would daily use phrases in German, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Russian in addition to speaking their own Moldavian dialect of Romanian. Their more highly educated peers would also have been fluent in French, the lingua franca of that time and place. It was in this melting pot of cultures that the young Enescu spent his early years.

When he was four Enescu was taught by a gypsy fiddler to play the violin by ear. It was readily apparent that he had great talent, and he was sent to study at the conservatoire in Iaši, the cultural centre of Romanian Moldavia. In 1888 the precocious seven-year-old travelled west with his parents and enrolled at the Vienna Conservatoire.

After two years in Vienna, Enescu entered the Paris Conservatoire to be taught by the composer Jules Massenet and the Belgian violinist Martin Marsick among others. He loved his composition classes, but found his other classes rather dull. After Massenet’s departure from the Conservatoire, Enescu was somewhat disappointed by his new professor, Gabriel Fauré, whose pedagogical methods he found were as ordinary as his music was extraordinary. Among Enescu’s many composer friends in Paris was Maurice Ravel, whose Violin Sonata, completed in 1927, owes much to the sound advice offered by his younger Romanian contemporary.

Until the outbreak of the Great War Enescu resided in Paris, earning a decent living as a concert violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher. The financial security that resulted from so many sources of income gave him the leisure to compose, and he produced a good number of piano, chamber and orchestral works, including the three piano suites, the first two violin sonatas, the wind decet and the notoriously popular Romanian Rhapsodies, the first of which continues to eclipse everything else that he composed because of its catchy and ineffaceable melodies.

In 1914 Enescu returned to Romania and played for numerous morale-boosting charity concerts in his warweary homeland. After hostilities ended in 1918 the country’s economy was in dire straits. In order to generate capital, King Ferdinand sanctioned major land reforms that deprived large landowners (such as Enescu’s father) of the greater part of their estates. If Enescu had ever entertained hopes of inheriting his father’s wealth, they were now well and truly dashed. In the 1920s Enescu was back in Paris, where he established himself as one of the world’s supreme teachers. Yehudi Menuhin said in later life that Enescu remained ‘the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever received’. He was also instrumental in shaping the early careers of many other prominent violinists, such as Arthur Grumiaux, Christian Ferras and Ivry Gitlis. Among pianists, he was particularly assiduous in promoting the interests of his compatriots Clara Haskil and Dinu Lipatti. As a conductor, he enjoyed an excellent press during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the United States, where he regularly directed the orchestras of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston and Cincinnati, and narrowly missed out on becoming Arturo Toscanini’s successor at the New York Philharmonic.

Enescu’s ambitious, and at times Expressionistic, opera Œdipe was enthusiastically received in Paris in 1936, yet it was not heard again until a French radio performance just before the composer’s death in 1955. In 1939 Enescu finally married his long-term lover, Marie Cantacuzino-Rosetti, whom he adored despite her apparent mental instability. During the Second World War he stayed in Romania, but afterwards he left the country; the leaders of the new peoples’ democracy were happy enough to promote Enescu’s music, but they were less happy about allowing him to carry on profiting from his numerous property deals. He continued to teach, especially in France, Italy and the United States, but he never regained his financial security, and he died in reduced circumstances in Paris in May 1955. His grave is to be found in the famous Parisian cemetery of Père Lachaise.

By all accounts, Enescu’s style of piano playing was much like his violin playing; intense and vibrant, yet tempered by the famously refined and expressive elegance that Menuhin so venerated. His first acknowledged piano masterpiece was the Suite No. 2 in D major, Op. 10, which dates from 1903. In the titles given to each movement—Toccata, Sarabande, Pavane and Bourrée—Enescu harks back to earlier times, especially to Baroque composers such as J.S. Bach, whom he greatly revered. Nevertheless, the suite is very much of its time, for its general mood is decidedly Impressionistic. The majestic Toccata is sonorous and contemplative, while the noble, yet gentle, Sarabande gives more than an occasional nod of homage to Debussy. The Pavane, slow and rocking, has a flute-like quality with magical moments of diaphanous delicacy. The suite concludes with a lively Bourrée that creates an air of infectious optimism.

The seven Pièces impromptues, Op. 18, written between 1913 and 1916, are also collectively known as Suite No. 3. The final two numbers are sometimes played in isolation from the others. The first of these, Choral, is slow and sustained, with unmeasured bars of immense length. Carillon nocturne is remarkable for its extraordinarily original use of tone colours. In a perfect piece of scoring that embeds an almost continuous stream of diminished and augmented octaves within the general musical texture, Enescu recreates the clangorous overtones of large bells. The result anticipates Olivier Messiaen’s similarly rich multi-chord piano writing by many years.

The Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 24 No. 1, was composed in 1924 while Enescu was also working on Œdipe. The opening movement presents a constant source of harmonic surprises, while the central Presto is characterized by an insistent rhythm that is sometimes stabbingly violent. The work was completed in the Carpathian mountain resort of Sinaia, which is slightly surprising given that the finale is supposed to be a re-creation of the lowland atmosphere of the Danubian plain further to the south.

© 2009, Anthony Short

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