About this Recording
8.572691 - ENESCU, G.: Violin and Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (A. Strauss, Poletaev)

George Enescu (1881–1955)
Violin Sonatas Nos 2 and 3 • Sonata ‘Torso’ • Impromptu concertant


Among the vast repertoire of music for violin and piano, the works of George Enescu occupy an altogether special place. One of the twentieth century’s towering musicians, Enescu was once called by Pablo Casals “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”. A prodigious talent, who was said to have by memory most of the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, he was not only one of the century’s most important violinists, but an excellent pianist, a conductor of some of the most eminent orchestras of his time, an unforgettable teacher and, most importantly, a composer of some of the most moving, complex, and refined music of his day, music that has only recently begun to find a wide audience outside his native country. Born in Romania, he studied first in Vienna, where as a boy he played under the baton of Brahms, and later in Paris, where his teachers included Gabriel Fauré and the great contrapuntal pedagogue André Gedalge. Upon graduation from the Paris Conservatoire with a Premier Prix in violin playing, he launched a brilliant career that took him to some of the most important concert stages of Europe and the United States and to partnerships with other contemporary luminaries such as Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaud, Pablo Casals, and many others. His international upbringing is reflected in his music, which organically absorbs and transforms a wealth of diverse influences: the drama and the complex organizational procedures of German music, the refinement of harmony and colour of the French school, and the vitality, variety and sophistication of the folk-music of Romania, with its unusual scales and fluid rhythms.

Enescu’s published oeuvre is relatively small—33 opus numbers in total. Among these are several large-scale works, his only opera, Oedipe, three symphonies, three suites for orchestra, some weighty chamber works (sonatas for violin and cello, two string quartets, two piano quartets and a piano quintet), a chamber symphony, songs, and other works of smaller dimensions. Behind this published output lies an enormous mass of unfinished manuscripts, which is at present kept in the Enescu Museum in Bucharest and which is being gradually mined for performable material by eager scholars and performers alike. A busy life, combined with perfectionism of a rare order, meant that works flowed slowly from Enescu’s pen, often taking years or even decades to reach their final shape. He was also notoriously reticent about promoting and programming his own music. This fact, and the ill-health Enescu suffered in his later years, goes some way towards explaining the relative neglect of his output outside Romania. It is also the quality and intensity of his writing, however, that makes for some special challenges for the audience. Enescu’s music is highly complex, overlapping layer upon layer of melodic lines into what one of his contemporaries called “a magic jungle”—often derived, however, from very simple basic building blocks. Another characteristic feature of his language, one that became more pronounced as his style developed, is avoidance of symmetry and literal repetition: everything is constantly being modified and varied, with the end result that no two moments in Enescu’s mature music are ever exactly alike. Yet, despite the formidable intellectual craft with which it is constructed, Enescu’s music is never pedantic, or artificial, although its richness can be almost too involved for a casual concert hall encounter. A recording of Enescu’s complete works for piano and violin thus gives the listener a unique opportunity for an intimate, and unhurried, traversal of his creative trajectory.

Violin Sonata in A minor ‘Torso’ (1911)

A striking composition that remained, like many other works, unpublished by the composer for unknown reasons, the one-movement Sonata in A minor has perhaps most in common with Enescu’s symphonic style, which blossomed in the years leading up to World War I. It is a turbulent, dense work, where one easily detects the influence of Richard Strauss, and—perhaps, most strongly in the sombre march-like episodes in the development and the coda—an echo of Gustav Mahler. Emotionally it covers an unusually wide gamut, from the wistful, nostalgic opening, reminiscent of Romanian folklore (and of the Third Sonata, yet to come), to the passionate soaring of the second theme, to the eerie, storm-gathering atmosphere of the development, to the apocalyptic climax and an achingly fragile closing section. As often happens with Enescu, the entire movement can be traced to a few basic ideas stated in the opening bars. This deeply embedded sense of unity, hidden behind what at first hearing may seem like an overabundance of sounds, textures, colours, and gestures, is one of the most important features of Enescu’s musical language.

Impromptu concertant (1903)

A short, charming work, dating from the composer’s earlier years in Paris, the Impromptu concertant may come across as a typical salon piece, with its sensuous and carefree atmosphere of fin-de-siècle France. But Enescu’s particular individuality is present here in the sophistication and unpredictability of the overlapping melodic lines, in the asymmetry of phrase lengths, and in the curiously truncated form, which avoids the traditional repetition of the opening section, and restates only its ecstatic ending after a warm, generously spun melody in the middle.

Violin Sonata No 3 in A minor, Op 25 (1926)
‘Dans le caractère populaire roumain’

The Third Sonata “in the Romanian folk style” is perhaps Enescu’s most frequently performed work after the Romanian Rhapsodies, written at the age of eighteen and decried by their composer as having entirely overshadowed his later, far more sophisticated output. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable works ever written for this combination of instruments, and one of the most challenging and rewarding for the performer. Enescu recreates here the atmosphere of popular musical practice of Romania, using the two instruments to evoke a whole world of folk music-making, spontaneous-sounding to the ear, yet tightly controlled in actual design and mercilessly precise in notation. While the violin engages in a variety of techniques and sonorities reminiscent of lăutars (Romanian fiddlers), the piano often imitates the sound of the csimbalòm (a type of psaltery), acting, as Pascal Bentoiu remarked, as a “giant resonator” for the violin; at other times, it recalls a cobza, a plucked lute-like instrument; at others still, it becomes an entire orchestra of folk instruments. No actual folk-tunes are quoted, although Bentoiu points out similarities of the opening subject of the finale to some Northern Moldavian tunes, and the second subject has been found to have some analogues in the synagogal Hassidic singing of the region. Moreover, references to such genres as the doina (a slow lament) and the hora (a joyful dance) are found throughout the work. Yet the genius of this creation lies in its transcendence of any specific references or genres; rather than being an illustration, a musical postcard, the Sonata is as rigorous and complex a compositional organism as any of Enescu’s other works, adhering, in the background, to entirely traditional formal procedures. The first movement is in sonata form; its clarity is somewhat obscured by the transformation of the opening material into a steadfast, almost menacing hora in the recapitulation. The second movement, in song form, was said by one its first interpreters, Alfred Cortot to evoke “the mysterious feeling of summer nights in Romania…”; Enescu himself penciled crapauds (frogs) over the ringing of the single piano note at the opening, while the violin plays a long, mournful doina entirely in harmonics. The same melody is heard at the climax of the movement, now a desperate wailing; at other moments, the music turns almost humorous and one can hear folk musicians imitating birdcalls on their instruments. The finale, a modified rondo, dances with a peculiarly spiky brand of merriment, going, in turn, through episodes of mirth, lament, and culminating in the final, delirious explosion of sound in the Coda.

Violin Sonata No 2 in F minor, Op 6 (1899)

The Second Sonata is a milestone in Enescu’s development as a composer. In it, according to the composer’s own confession, he finds his own voice, and makes a “qualitative leap” (Noel Malcolm) from his numerous student compositions to music that, while clearly owing some of its features to Fauré and Franck, grows, lives, and breathes in a way that is wholly its own. It is a dramatic and turbulent creation, with a cyclical design that is of remarkable sophistication and assurance, especially for an eighteen-year old. Also notable is the complexity of the polyphonic writing, which will henceforth become a key feature of Enescu’s musical language. The first movement opens with a long, sinuous, asymmetrical line played in unison by the violin and the piano; the intervallic cells contained in this brief opening will provide the material for the rest of the movement and beyond, to be quoted and subtly re-used in both the second and the third movements. Perhaps there is more than a hint of Beethoven’s famous ‘Appassionata’ in this opening, written in the same dark key of F minor. The mournful, elegiac second movement, according to Enescu’s own recollections, is based on a melody that came to him at the age of fourteen, and that he carried in his head for four years; its massive climax quotes, momentarily, the first movement. The finale, exuberant and very Gallic in spirit, quotes both first and second movements; the opening theme of the sonata is transformed into a frolicking romp and the plangent music of the second movement is presented in an impassioned central episode of the Finale.

Ilya Poletaev

Close the window