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GP705 - ENESCU, G.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Solaun)
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George Enescu: A Man for All Musical Seasons
Complete Works for Solo Piano • 1

 

In the vast Eastern European diaspora of 20th Century music, few composers can claim the audacity and originality of George Enescu. Born to a middle class family in 1881 in Liveni, a small Romanian village 400 kilometres from Bucharest, Enescu was barely in his teens when he commanded the attention of Europe’s musical aristocracy as a virtuoso violinist. A versatile polymath from childhood, he was only seven years old when he enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory, making his debut the next year in Romania. In 1895 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he cultivated his compositional gifts as a student of Fauré and Massenet, astounding all who knew him with his consummate virtuosity at the piano, cello, and organ as well. The Colonne Orchestra, one of the most highly regarded ensembles of the day, gave the Paris premiere of his first major composition, Poème roumain, a work that brought him lifelong fame in his native land and the abiding respect and recognition of the international musical community.

As a conductor and violinist he made several international tours after the end of World War I. In 1933 the New York Philharmonic nominated him to take over its helm from Toscanini in (the position went to Barbirolli). He was a champion of contemporary music other than his own, having participated as a pianist in the first performance of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Accompanied by their composers, he performed the Fauré, Bartók, Strauss, and Ravel violin sonatas, the latter of which he premiered. As a pianist he played four-hand piano music with Fauré, performed Shostakovich with Daniil Shafran, and collaborated with Saint-Saëns, Thibaud, and Richard Tucker; as an orchestral violinist, he performed Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with the composer at the piano.

For nearly a half century the name Enescu was on the lips of every major concert artist. Among them were his classmate at the Conservatoire, Alfred Cortot, his godson Dinu Lipatti; Gustav Mahler, his student Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, and Clara Haskil, to name only a few. Fleeing Romania’s communist regime for the west, he spent his later years in exile, teaching privately in Paris and at the Mannes College in New York, where many of the most celebrated violinists of the day competed to become his students. His farewell concert with the New York Philharmonic featured him as violinist and conductor. In 1954, Enescu suffered a stroke that paralysed him. He died a year later.

The Music

Enescu’s birth was only one major event in what turned out to be an exceptionally auspicious decade. Only months earlier Romania had crowned her new King and Queen, Carol I and Elisabeth; a year later, emboldened by its nascent embrace of innovation and progress, it established a stock exchange, and by 1884 it had its first telephone. In 1886 it inaugurated its great concert hall, the Athaneum, in Bucharest, with a concert by the Bucharest Philharmonic. And by the decade’s end in faraway England, Bram Stoker had penned his popular novel, Dracula, which enshrined the ancient Romanian ruler, Vlad Tepesin, in popular mythology.

It was into this climate of change, imagination, and hope that Enescu emerged. Of the works on this programme, the earliest is the Nocturne in D flat (1907). He composed the Pièces impromptues, Op. 18, which have often been misidentified as a suite, over three years from 1913 to 1916, just as war was beginning to devastate Europe. The Sonata in F sharp minor, Op. 24, No. 1, one of his most esoteric compositions, bore the influence of his nearly twenty year preoccupation with his opera Œdipe, a work that would be given its world premiere in 1931 and which paid homage to his unusual interest in oriental music and micro-tonality. Indeed, the evolution of Enescu’s music is akin to that of the multi-dimensional theories of quantum physics; not only is something new, innovative, and unexpected revealed in each successive work, but each gives way to a cosmos of drifting, interdependent voices and ideas, their trajectory uncertain, their meaning ambiguous, and their objective never anything less than an enigma.

Nocturne in D flat

Enescu penned this ruminative twenty minute work in 1907, the same year that Scriabin composed his no less extravagant Fifth Piano Sonata. Subtitled “Hommage à la Princesse Marie Cantacuzène” (Cantacuzène was his mentally unstable wife), it suggests the composer had at last settled into a unique compositional language after years of experimentation. Indeed, in the years leading up to it, Enescu vacillated from the forthright formalities of neo-classicism in his First Orchestral Suite (1903), to the late Viennese chromaticism that characterizes his Octet for Strings (1900). Nor did the pervasive influence of Wagner escape him; his First Symphony (1905), with its middle movement nod to Tristan und Isolde, is testimony to that.

In the D flat nocturne Enescu brings into focus his prevailing compositional ideology, which favoured the superimposition of melodic material. This approach to composition owed a debt to Romanian folk music, and proceeded from the doina, a species of song at once contemplative and melancholic as it set forth a melodic line in tandem with ornamentation. Given the aesthetic climate of the day, it was no accident that his contemporaries in nearby Russia, such as Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, drew on the similar, folk-music inspired protyazhenaya, which likewise appropriated the expansive melisma of the indigenous people. There was also an asymmetry about his music that adumbrated Enescu’s later works, no matter that, by the 1920s, he had pretty much abandoned his interest in Romanian folk music. The nocturne proceeds plaintively in three large sections, as if a play in three acts, in continuous shifts of sonorities that move shadow-like one into the other.

Pièces impromptues, Op. 18 (1913–1916)

Perhaps in deference to Enescu’s earlier, neo-baroque suites, his devotees, including musicologists, have mistakenly attributed the same moniker—“suite”—to the fanciful, seven movement Pièces Impromptues. However, Enescu neither gave nor intended to assign that name to this work, nor could he defend it as such; he believed it was lost, and it was not until 1959, four years after his death, that it was given its premiere.

Rather, these are a set of entirely independent, essentially unrelated character pieces, composed over a three year period, that illuminate once again Enescu’s fascination with the indigenous music of Romania.

The first in the series, Mélodie is a haunting and irresolute excursion into Wanderlust that gives way to the densely ornamental and imitation-rich Voix de la Steppe. The ensuing Mazurk mélancolique reinvents a generic vision of the traditional Polish dance, elaborating the ascending motivic fragment into something quizzical and introspective. Upon first listening the pointed and athletic Burlesque may appear to be a nod to Stravinsky, but that is unlikely; Enescu pays hommage to more than one Debussy prelude in its nearly six minutes. Appassionato, a brief, but opulent rhapsody takes a nostalgic look back at late-19th century romanticism in a halo of arpeggios, while the following Choral is exactly that: a pious, eloquent testament to faith. Concluding the set is the remarkable Carillon nocturne, a work that anticipates the music of Olivier Messiaen by decades. In its uncannily accurate evocation of bell changes, Enescu appropriates echo effects, which give emphasis to overtones and mimic the acoustic vibrations that set the atmosphere atremble, transforming the piano into an entirely different instrument. Unfortunately, Enescu never completed an eighth piece, entitled Défilé dans l’ombre (Parade in the Shadow).

Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 24, No. 1 (1924)

“I’m not a person for pretty successions of chords … a piece deserves to be called a musical composition only if it has a line, a melody, or, even better, melodies superimposed on one another.”

In voicing that sentiment, Enescu could easily have been describing his massive, three-movement F sharp minor sonata. Opening onto a precipice of uncertain octaves, the first movement Allegro molto moderato e grave is an oceanic affair, a sea of multivalent voices, or heterophony that unfolds outwards en route to the second movement, a jocular and amply syncopated Presto vivace. The humorous, Shostakovichian quasi-fugato of the opening bars forecasts the whirlwind of imitation to follow. The concluding movement, Andante molto espressivo, is a plaintive affair that orbits solemnly around a sub-dominant pedal point on B. The pervasiveness of this ever-present pitch not only contributes to a heightened sense of anxiety, but to a kind of compositional rootlessness in spite of the implicit stability that pedal points are famous for. Surrounding it is the aforementioned, melancholic doina, which weaves its way around the pitch, and then above a subtle ostinato. Dynamically, the pianist is challenged by the movement’s quiescence; it hovers principally in pianissimo as Enescu exploits every opportunity to ornament and vary the material. What’s more, he notates it almost entirely in the middle and upper registers of the instrument, which serve to complement its contemplative ambiance. Finally, the sonata does not stop so much as it fades away, its immanent anxieties effectively dispersed, but entirely unresolved.

John Bell Young


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