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GP706 - ENESCU, G.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 2 (Solaun)
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George Enescu: A Man for All Musical Seasons
Complete Works For Solo Piano • 2


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 (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 paralyzed 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 Suite pour piano ‘Des cloches sonores’, Op. 10. Upon its completion in 1903, Enescu submitted it to a competition sponsored by the distinguished French piano maker, Pleyel. His victory in this contest, the compositional language of which was so radically different from that of his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel, marked a major milestone in his career, at least in western Europe. The puckish, and deceptively joyful Third Sonata, composed more than three decades later, was actually a product of a period in Enescu’s life at once rich in opportunity but also deeply troubled; in addition to his many professional obligations, he was compelled to look after his mentally ill wife, the Princesse Maria Cantacuzine, whose multiple suicide attempts nearly derailed his career. The Pièce sur le nom de Fauré, written in 1922, was a charming souvenir in homage of its eponym, the composer Gabriel Fauré, and composed at the invitation of his colleagues, who also offered their own musical reminiscences.

Suite pour piano ‘Des cloches sonores’, Op. 10 (1901–1903)

This immensely joyful, even ebullient work owes much in spirit to the imaginative, dance-like creations of Debussy and Ravel, such as the former’s Suite bergamasque and the latter’s Sonatine. But Enescu’s compositional process and musical philosophy could not be more different. Perhaps it was no coincidence, given the work’s audacity, that the Pleyel Piano competition jurors who awarded it first prize, included Debussy himself, Vincent d’Indy, Jules Massenet, and Alfred Cortot. Originally, Enescu composed the opening, ever so sonorous Toccata as an independent work, but two years later, in 1903, he resolved to add a Sarabande, Pavane and a Bourrée, culminating in the prize-winning work that the French musical aristocracy found so endearing. That Ravel appropriated the second theme of the Toccata, later citing it in the toccata of his Tombeau de Couperin, is testimony enough to its ingenuity, to speak nothing of the impression that Enescu’s music must have had on the French mainstream. The contemplative, somewhat quizzical Sarabande, which pays subtle homage to Fauré in its ambulatory efflorescence, is followed by a bucolic Pavane, which emerges as the heart of the suite. Here, Enescu appropriates a uniquely Romanian compositional affect, the doina, a melancholy species of song that sets forth a melodic line in tandem with ornamentation. The concluding Bourrée is a bold and virtuoso romp, which at times makes nearly impossible demands on the performer’s stamina as it evokes, with uncommon rhythmic vigour, the ceremonial gestuary and bronzen sonorities of bell changes.

Prélude et Fugue (1903)

Composed in 1903, the amiable if academic Prelude and Fugue is a devotional of sorts. Indeed, lurking behind its rather traditional reservoir of imitation and counterpoint is an expression of admiration for André Gedalge, who was not only one of his composition professors, but a good friend as well. It was Gedalge who opened a major door in Enescu’s burgeoning career, introducing him to the prestigious French publishing house of Enoch. That introduction proved fortuitous for the young composer, who was now assured that his compositions would be well distributed across the continent and his music heard.

The unusually lengthy prelude, which drifts forward for nearly ten minutes, makes no apologies for its evocation of Bach. Although it is easy enough to hear the influence of Bach’s own C major Prelude from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, it is hardly a pale clone. On the contrary, Enescu’s work unfolds effortlessly in succinct sequences of ascending, bell-like motives, cumulatively organized in a manner faithful to baroque era compositional aesthetics, where the smallest units of affect prevail. The entire piece is nothing if not the evocation of a smile, while the ensuing fugue proves a playful, energetic, and certainly humorous partner.

Pièce sur le nom de Fauré (1922)

Barely two and a half minutes in length, this brief excursion into a rather densely entwined heterophony takes the musical letters of Fauré’s name—F, A, and E—and fashions them into a balmy, efflorescent, and entirely irresolute tribute to the great French composer. Composed in 1922, there is a Scriabinesque air about it, but its harmonic language takes off in another direction entirely. Intervallic relations in each of its voices emerge and recede at an unusually wide distance given its brevity and abbreviated development. As one voice crawls piggyback onto another, it gives way to an afterthought, a kind of ephemeral reflection on a specific contrapuntal challenge.

Piano Sonata No. 3 in D major, Op. 24, No. 3 (1935)

The Beethovenian opening of the Third Piano Sonata is deceptive, in that at first it may suggest something of a neo-classical musical experience awaits. But Enescu is hardly a composer who is so easily categorized or pigeonholed, no matter his various compositional excursions and their reliance on the styles of earlier periods. The Third Sonata is in itself deceptive, at least in terms of its accredited place among its composer’s catalogue. That is because there is no second sonata, at least one that was completed; Enescu left only a sketch of what was to be that preceding work. The spirited Vivace con brio that inaugurates this sonata is barely six minutes in length, but holds its own as a playful, incandescent, and mercilessly bright musical polemic that gives way to a far more contemplative second movement, a subtle Andantino cantabile. It would be easy enough to surmise that the epigrammatic, mercurial elements of one of Scriabin’s middle period compositions, such as Énigme, may well have influenced Enescu here. If so, the effect is merely ideational, not substantial, as at its heart is a searching soliloquy that remains unresolved. The third movement, appropriately marked Allegro con spirito, sports something of a neurotic compulsiveness that is anything but mechanical. More than double the length of the first movement, its makes its point cumulatively through the energetic presentation of whole sequences of repeated notes in the background, which fuel the nervous proliferation of chordal figures in ascension throughout. If a hint of Stravinsky’s La semaine grasses from Petrushka rears its head every now and then, it does so ingeniously amidst a restatement of the ebullient motivic material of the first movement.

John Bell Young

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