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Steven E. Ritter
Fanfare, July 2012

If there is a greater piano sonata of the 20th century than George Enescu’s First, I certainly don’t know what it is. The music is simply phenomenal, and far more complex than the way it sounds. I would encourage any of our readers to…follow along with this multifaceted, profoundly multilayered and harmonically complex work, one that not only sucks you in with its opening movement (one of the most seductive in the literature) but then takes you on a wild ride through a scherzo…before luring you into the final trap with a beautifully conceived andante last movement. He wrote three piano sonatas, but only two exist…this First is really something special.

The piano suites are different; archaic in nature, as so many romantic and postromantic compositions of this kind, and far more populist with the traditional use of dance movements as the launching pad; this time we have all of the composer’s three works in this genre…No. 2…is a fine example of Enescu’s emerging talent and is his first genuine masterpiece for the piano, influenced to a large degree by Bach, whom Enescu adored.

I really enjoy the playing of Matei Varga. His sense of line is powerful and consistent, while the rhythmic zaniness of some of this music is second nature to him. He is able to play with gorgeous clarity and ability to delineate Enescu’s concentrated harmonic strata, and for the most part regales an unerring sense of tempo relationships…this is a recording that stands well on its own, and is more than adequate in fully presenting Enescu’s wonderful music; in fact, Varga is a superb pianist who deserves much consideration on his own merits. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, July 2012

The First Sonata…has a certain atmospheric beauty about it, with passages of crystalline chiming high up on the keyboard that add to the feeling of being suspended in a watery ecosphere.

Enescu’s [D-Major Suite] is gorgeous music, especially the Sarabande and Pavane, which could easily be classified as salon music, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense.

The Chorale is exactly that, a study in four-part harmonization that proceeds in more or less regular chord progressions until it doesn’t. And it’s the “until it doesn’t” that makes it such a hauntingly beautiful piece. More bell-like tolling and chiming are heard in the “Carillon nocturne,” but these are the large clangorous church bells that peal with the clashing overtones of diminished and augmented octaves as they’re rung or nudged by wind, giving the impression of a symphonic tintinnabulation.

Varga is such an artist. Given the limited volume of Enescu’s piano music, I realize one can’t make an entire career of it, and Varga hasn’t, but after hearing this Naxos Enescu disc, I hope Varga will bring us as much more of the composer’s piano music as he can. A beautiful experience and strongly recommended. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2012

…[In] “Carillon nocturne,”…the pianist sounds as if he has somehow modified the piano to produce the almost tinny quality of a carillon, yet since there are in-between passages where the effect is not heard, I must assume that it has more to do with pedaling and touch. Both of these pieces, written before and during World War I, have the innate calm and innocence that so much music from that era possesses.

The Suite No. 2 (1903), often acknowledged as Enescu’s first great work, is written in an Impressionistic-Baroque style…Here Varga does a splendid job of employing rubato and keeping the lines from sounding cluttered.

…Varga’s playing is consistently sensitive, flowing, and resonant, which suits these particular pieces very well…he clearly has an affinity to these specific works and has thought them through very well before committing them to disc. It is, in a word, selfless playing, in which he is giving us the music and not his personality, and I for one find that refreshing. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review

Radu A. Lelutiu
Fanfare, July 2012

George Enescu is one of 20th century’s most underrated composers, and his piano music in particular deserves to be heard a lot more often.

…Matei Varga has a very special affinity with his compatriot’s music, which he plays with great respect, affection, insight, and, when the score requires it, romantic abandon.

There are countless moments to savor. In the pensive, chromatic last movement of the sonata, Varga’s luminous tone, subtle tempo adjustments, dynamic gradations, and glissandi simply take one’s breath away. This is magical, hypnotic playing that disarms criticism. In the Chorale, Varga sustains Enescu’s endlessly arching lines and slow tempo without ever sounding slow or repetitive, and, frankly, he makes this music sound a lot more profound than it is. In the exquisite “Carillon nocturne”…Varga’s control of dynamics, articulation, and pedaling result in some wonderful glowing sonorities. This is as close as one can get to actually hearing a ripple effect performed on a musical instrument. The Second Suite…is an absolute delight. The Sarabande and Pavane in particular show Varga’s remarkable gifts as a colorist, and feature some of the most beautiful pianissimo sounds I’ve heard from anyone…Varga plays it with authority and makes the most of it.

The quality of the sound is uniformly excellent, and it does full justice to Varga’s wide dynamic palette. The recording credits the legendary Max Wilcox as a producer. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, July 2011

Trained in Romania and later at Mannes, Matei Varga is a talented young pianist with a string of contest victories behind him—and he makes a vivid impression on this new Enescu recording. What’s perhaps most notable is his acute sense of vertical balance, invaluable in music with such textural complexity; inner lines emerge gracefully, and there’s a refreshing transparency to even the densest passages. Varga has a fine sense of the music’s range of character as well, whether it be the post-Scriabinesque yearnings of the first movement of the sonata (reminiscent, in spots, of the Berg), the rather jazzy drive of the second movement, the almost Fauréen sweetness of the Second Suite’s Sarabande, or the calm mystery of the Choral from the Third Suite. Colors are evocative throughout, too, especially in the quieter end of the spectrum (try the sotto voce mystery at the beginning of the sonata).

…those seeking an inexpensive one-disc introduction to Enescu’s piano music, one that gives a taste of both the sonatas and the suites, should find this new release well worth consideration.

Alan Becker
American Record Guide, March 2011

A few years back Romanian pianist Luiza Borac made a major contribution to the Enesco discography with two discs of piano music, both favorably reviewed by me. Her countryman, Varga, has now contributed towards this discography by offering his ideas on several of the pieces.

If you want to dip into just a little Enesco, the present very well accomplished recording offers an inexpensive way of doing that. Piano Sonata 1 (1924) compares favorably with Borac’s performance. The timing is similar, and the expressionist writing is ably conveyed by both pianists. Were I to cite any differences, it would be only to note that Borac comes across in a more lyrical manner, while Varga tears into the sinew of this music with greater bite and forcefulness. Listeners weaned on the Romanian Rhapsodies would be hard-pressed to find much of a similar nature here. It might be a tough nut to crack, but well worth the effort.

Suite 2 is an altogether different story. Dating from 1903, the music’s four movements hearken back to earlier baroque forms and, with an impressionist overlay, are an effective homage to the past. Varga stretches things out some five minutes longer than Borac, but manages to sustain the lines in the ‘Sarabande’ and ‘Pavane’ without any tedium.

Completing this program are the ‘Choral’ and ‘Carillon Nocturne’, VI and VII from Suite 3. Since I cannot imagine anyone being fully satisfied with this partial selection, if the Enesco bug bites, it is inevitable that you will seek out both Borac discs. If you do not succumb so readily, this will probably do the job for you. Decent notes and good sound complete the picture.

Grego Applegate Edwards
Gapplegate Music Review, November 2010

Music lovers of my generation, mostly, came across the music of Romanian composer George Enescu (1881–1955) as the B-side of the highly acclaimed Ravi Shankar-Yehudi Menuhin album East Meets West. On the second side was a marvelous performance of Enescu’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano,” a work that reveled in an Eastern European tonality that made it a fitting example of the eastern-western half of the equation (the raga side of the record exemplifying the western-eastern, as it were). That record encouraged me to seek out more music by Enescu, and I found some wonderful recordings. The end of the LP era marked the end of further Enescu collecting for me. No reason, except perhaps there was less of it around on CD for a time.

With the Naxos (8.572120) release of Piano Music, performed in lovely fashion by Matei Varga, we get another side of the composer. This is more the Enescu as international stylist than it is Enescu the nationalist composer. The “Piano Sonata No. 1,” “Pieces Impromptues, Op. 18,” and the “Suite No. 2, Op. 10” are worthy examples of Enescu’s art. There is a Ravellian glimmer in much of this music. It is delightful, as are the performances by Matei Varga.

Enescu needs to be heard more often. You can do that with this one and be assured that it is good Enescu music, not just any old Enescu music.

James Manheim, November 2010

The rediscovery of Eastern European repertoires from the first half of the 20th century continues to yield treasures, and here is a new set. Romanian composer George Enescu remains mostly known for his Romanian Rhapsodies (2) for orchestra, but between the world wars he was known, respected, and followed all over Europe, by Ravel among others. Enescu’s little-heard piano music has been recorded in toto by Luiza Borac, but those wanting a single disc at the attractive Naxos price would do well to pick up this selection of diverse works recorded by the young Romanian American Matei Varga. Enescu’s models were the French impressionists, but his voice is unique, with a dedication to sheer knotty complexity that was alien to French music. The Choral from the Pièces Impromptues, Op. 18, makes a good place to start: it develops a large structure in an unbroken arc from the chorale-like material stated at the beginning. The same sense of the long line is present in the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 24/1, composed in 1924; its tempo indication, Allegro molto moderato e grave, gives an idea of its constantly shifting harmonies and tempi. It’s an extraordinary piece that copies no school, constantly surprises the listener, and yet seems to hang ineluctably together. The Suite No. 2 in D major, Op. 10, partakes of the neo-Baroque strain present in the music of Debussy and Ravel, but again is entirely different in effect, with dense harmonic complications enveloping the stately Sarabande and Pavane. The folk strain in Enescu’s music is only hinted at (in the sonata’s last two movements), but it is well known from elsewhere, and this fine recording, with a pianist fully on top of the rather punishing and never showy virtuosity required by Enescu’s music, is likely to whet the listener’s attention for more of it. With top-notch engineering from New York’s Patrych Sound Studios, this is a standout among Naxos’ discs seeking the revival of lost national repertories.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

Violinist, pianist, conductor, teacher and composer, George Enescu was one of the most gifted and complete musicians in the first half of the 20th century. So why do we know so little about him today? Maybe he spread his immense gifts over too great a musical area. Born in Romania in 1881, he learned to play the violin by ear at the age of four. Entered into the Vienna Conservatoire when seven he was moved to study at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine, continuing his violin studies and entering the composition class of Massenet. Performing and using his teaching skills provided the wherewithal to allow him time to begin composing. Chamber music featured in a substantial output, the present disc covering his younger years, and came at a time when the melodic style he used was becoming unfashionable. Yet he was never afraid to experiment, as in his attempt to recreate a carillon in the second of his Pièces impromptues. The Second Suite dates from his twenty-second year, its four movements meeting every convention of the early Romantic era in France. But it is the three totally different moods of the First Piano Sonata that proves so irresistibly fascinating. The young Romanian pianist, Matei Varga, won a first prize performing the work at the George Enescu Competition in Bucharest, and you can feel throughout the disc his empathy with the music. His technical qualities are impeccable and his clean and clear playing is captured in recorded sound that could not be bettered. An outstanding release of neglected music.

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