'An unqualified recommendation' (Classic CD)
'Exemplary performance ... An important release, much to be recommended' (CDReview)
'Un disque splendide, qui espérons-le, ouvrira d'autres horizons à cette oeuvre attachante' (Disques Compactes, France)
'La précision et la sensualité du jeu d'Oprean font merveille' (Ecouter Voir, France)
Assez mouvemente [7'38]
Violin Sonata 'Torso' [16'02]
Moderato malinconio [8'17]
The Romanian composer George Enescu (1881–1955) is one of the neglected giants of modern music. His magnificent series of late chamber works, which starts with his Third Violin Sonata, includes pieces of striking originality, intricate beauty and expressive power which can be ranked with the finest chamber music of Ravel, Janácek or Bartók. Outside Romania, however, most of Enescu’s music is unknown, and the only pieces played at all frequently in the concert hall are his two early and far from typical Romanian Rhapsodies. Judging Enescu by those pieces alone is rather like judging Ravel on the basis of Bolero and nothing else.
There are several obvious reasons for this neglect. One is the sheer multifariousness of Enescu’s gifts, which meant that he was best known in America as a conductor, and in Europe as a violinist. Even in his own lifetime, therefore, his other talents helped to obscure and overshadow his vocation as a composer. Another reason for neglect was his peculiar homelessness as a national composer: although deeply attached to Romanian music, he was also a product of both the French and the Germanic traditions. He pursued his career as a performer mainly outside Romania, and his final years were spent in self-imposed exile from Communism. Never part of a movement or group of composers, he charted a very solitary compositional course. After his death, he was promoted (albeit with grotesque inefficiency) by the Communist regime in Romania as a national, folkloristic composer: this had the effect of narrowing his reputation, in European terms, still further. Only now can we in the West begin to discover the true range and richness of Enescu’s creative legacy.
Enescu was born to a fairly prosperous middle- or lower-middle-class family in the north-eastern corner of Romania, close to the Ukrainian border. He showed a precocious talent for both violin-playing and composition, and at the age of seven he entered the Vienna Conservatoire. There he encountered Brahms, and developed what was to be a life-long devotion to his music. In 1895 Enescu moved to the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Massenet and Fauré, and his friends and fellow-students included Ravel and Alfred Cortot. Even before he left the Conservatoire in 1899, he had attracted public acclaim in Romania as a composer; up until the first world war, he was based mainly in Paris, but spent several months each year in his native land, where he was appointed court musician to the Romanian royal family. Major works of this period included his first symphony (1905); his second and third symphonies were completed in Romania during the war.
From 1910 Enescu was also working sporadically on his opera Œdipe; he completed a full draft for piano of the opera in 1922, and his life during the 1920s was dominated by the task of orchestrating, elaborating and transforming this draft into the immensely complex full score, which was finished in 1931 and given its first performance at the Paris Opera in 1936. These inter-war years saw Enescu reach the peak of his fame as a performer in both Europe and America. He was also much in demand as a teacher; he seldom took regular pupils, but one notable exception was made with Yehudi Menuhin, who began studying with him in 1927. (Other pupils later included Arthur Grumiaux, Ida Haendel, Ivry Gitlis and Christian Ferras.)
Enescu spent the Second World War, like the First, in his native land. His musical life was necessarily constrained by wartime conditions, but the highlights of these years included a series of concerts and recordings in Bucharest with his godson, Dinu Lipatti. Also during these years Enescu wrote some of his finest chamber works, including the Impressions d’enfance for violin and piano, the Piano Quintet and the Second Piano Quartet. In 1946, as the stranglehold of the Communist Party over Romania was inexorably tightened, Enescu went into exile. During his final years he lived in circumstances of increasing poverty in Paris. Suffering from a chronic disease (a crippling curvature of the spine), he was unable to keep up his career as a violinist or conductor and spent more of his time as a teacher (notably at the music summer-schools at Bryanston, where he was a formative influence on the young Amadeus Quartet). He continued to compose, producing two more chamber works, the Second String Quartet (1951/2) and the Chamber Symphony (1954). Enescu suffered a paralysing stroke in the summer of 1954, and died on the night of 3/4 May 1955.
Enescu was still at the Paris Conservatoire when he wrote his Second Violin Sonata in April 1899. Listening to it, one would hardly guess that it was a student work, though one could not fail to notice the influence of Gabriel Fauré, who had taught Enescu composition. Certainly this work represents a huge stylistic advance on Enescu’s First Violin Sonata (1897), which was written in a much more foursquare classical style dominated by Schumann, Brahms and Saint-Saëns. From Fauré, evidently, Enescu had acquired devices of musical suppleness, complexity and elegant understatement: a sense of linear fluidity, sonorous but delicate keyboard textures, and an elliptical harmonic language combining modal progressions with hints of chromatic voluptuousness. This sonata was dedicated to the young French violinist, and fellow student at the Conservatoire, Jacques Thibaud (and to his pianist brother, Joseph). Enescu was entranced by the passionate delicacy of Thibaud’s style as a violinist and evidently tried to capture something of that elusive musical quality in the writing of this work.
Interviewed late in his life, Enescu described the genesis of this sonata as follows: ‘At the age of fourteen, when I was walking by myself in Prince Maurouzi’s garden, a theme came into my head. I carried it inside me for three years; then, at the age of seventeen, I wrote my Second Violin Sonata in the space of a fortnight.’ The work does have an extraordinary unity, mainly because of the way in which it is pervaded by the long, mysterious, harmonically suggestive and rhythmically disorientating theme which opens the first movement. Elements of this theme are developed throughout the work, in ways which not only vary the rhythmical pattern but also compress or expand the intervals between the notes, until one is left with a sense of a powerful but indeterminate musical shape behind the theme itself.
Two of Enescu’s most enduring characteristics as a composer can be noticed in this work. One is his development of an ‘organicist’ structure in which everything is related to everything else. Enescu had a deep-rooted preference for cyclical form, especially for that version of cyclical form which not only re-states the themes of earlier movements in the finale, but also piles them one on top of another, using the device of cumulative superimposition to reveal their hidden affinities. The other characteristic is his love of harmonically ambiguous modes which shift from major to minor: this technique derives ultimately from the chromatic modes of Romanian folk music, with their ‘mobile’ major-minor thirds, and it is put to use with touching simplicity in the slow movement of this sonata.
The Third Violin Sonata is in some ways a very untypical piece. No other mature work by Enescu has such a consistently, explicitly and exotically folk-Romanian character. By the time he wrote this sonata in 1926, Enescu had written other works with a Romanian flavour to them: some of the dances in Act I of Œdipe, for example, or the mysterious last movement of the First Piano Sonata (1924), which he once described as a depiction of a moonlit Romanian landscape. But he had come to feel that the direct quotation of folk tunes (as in his early Romanian Rhapsodies) was a fruitless procedure. There was nothing he could do with such tunes, he said, other than state them, juxtapose them and repeat them: any attempt to subject them to proper musical development would destroy their nature. In his increasingly organicist style, musical development and the exploration of complex inter-relationships was the very essence of composition. However, there were some techniques of Romanian folk music which seemed to offer new compositional possibilities, ways of enriching his own methods of musical development. One such technique has already been mentioned: the use of chromatic modes to break down the distinction between major and minor keys. Another technique was the use of quarter-tones, eroding the tonal scale itself. And a third, perhaps the most important of all, was the use of ‘heterophony’—that is, the superimposition of differing versions of the same musical material, sometimes with a slight time-lag as well, but without creating any sense of counterpoint, canon or fugue.
All these techniques are present in the Third Violin Sonata. The one thing which is not present is the direct quotation of folk themes. Instead, Enescu has invented an entire folk language of his own, in which the atmosphere and melodic colouring is deeply Romanian, but the themes (his creations) are incorporated from the start into his own individual processes of melodic and harmonic development. Enescu has here distilled, in a highly personal way, a sort of quintessence of Romanian folk music, with its modes, its rhythms (either the parlando rubato rhythm of the first movement, or the spiky dance rhythms of the last) and its opulent treasury of ornamentation. The subtitle of the work, ‘In the character of Romanian folk music’, deliberately uses the word ‘character’ rather than ‘style’: in an interview in 1928 Enescu said ‘I don’t use the word ‘style’ because that implies something made or artificial, whereas ‘character’ implies something given, existing from the beginning. […] In this way Romanian composers will be able to write valuable compositions whose character will be similar to that of folk music, but which will be achieved through different, absolutely personal means.’
In his attempt to capture the spirit of Romanian folk music, Enescu developed for this sonata what is virtually a new language of violin writing. The music is full of extremely detailed instructions such as ‘flautato sulla tastiera colla punta del arco’ (‘flute-like, with the point of the bow, on the fingerboard’); the ornamentation is elaborately notated, and different degrees of vibrato are also specified. When this is combined with the frequent fluctations of rhythm, tempo, dynamic and mood, the result is a score brimming with expressivity. Menuhin has written: ‘I know of no other work more painstakingly edited or planned. It is correct to say that it is quite sufficient to follow the score for one to interpret the work’. When Enescu has done with this extraordinary degree of specification is, paradoxical though this sounds, to convey a spirit of improvisation.
Much of the violin technique used here is, of course, an imitation of the playing of Romanian folk-fiddlers—though the term ‘imitation’ here covers a whole spectrum, from the direct reproduction of techniques (such as using a slight upwards portamento to lean into the beginning of a note) to the much more elusive evocation of mood and spirit. The piano part is imitative too: most obviously, of cymbalom-playing, though there are other sorts of imitative effect as well. The strange repeated notes at the start of the slow movement were, according to one pianist who played this work with Enescu (Céliny Chailley-Richez) an imitation of the squeaking of toads on a summer evening. Alfred Cortot, who also discussed and played this work with the composer, described the slow movement as ‘an evocation in sound of the mysterious feeling of summer nights in Romania: below, the silent, endless, deserted plain; above, constellations leading off into infinity …’. But whether the listener thinks of toads or galaxies is secondary. The music is primary.
Enescu’s practice as a composer suggests that he was torn by conflicting impulses. Sometimes an entire work would come to him, like the Second Violin Sonata, in a single flow; huge sections of Œdipe were sketched out with staggering speed, (Act 3, for example, was drafted in a single 24-hour spurt). But he was also a perfectionist who would keep chiselling away at his works with painstaking slowness, even with ones which had been performed and published, for years on end. Some large orchestral pieces were abandoned altogether; others were put on one side, leaving his musical executors after his death unable to tell whether some of the manuscripts they found were to be regarded as finished works or not. The definitely abandoned works include a dramatic cantata, a fourth and a fifth symphony, and a large orchestral work called Les Voix de la nature (‘The Voices of Nature’). Most poignantly of all, Enescu’s Second Piano Sonata was composed but never written down: up till the end of his life he insisted that it was ready, entire, in his mind—‘elle est là dans ma tête’.
Of all periods in Enescu’s life, the years 1909 to 1913 seem to have been the worst afflicted with self-doubt. A piano quintet was abandoned in 1909; nothing at all was written in 1910; an orchestral work titled Suite châtelaine was half-written and then put aside in 1911; and a piano sonata, which was begun in 1912, seems to have disappeared completely. Various biographical reasons can be found for this sorry state of affairs: illnesses, disappointments—his Symphonie concertante for cello and orchestra was loudly booed at its premiere in 1909—and, above all, the death of his mother in March of that year. But reasons internal to his stylistic development as a composer are important too, as the Sonata Torso helps to demonstrate. The only completed movement of this sonata (recorded here for the first time) was written out in a fair copy by Enescu and dated 5 October 1911. Fair-copying and dating were special marks of approval for Enescu; and yet the manuscript of the second movement breaks off after one page, and nothing more of this work survives. Given that Enescu never gave the sonata an opus number, never performed it and never even referred to it, we can be certain that it was consciously abandoned, rather than merely mislaid. And it is the stylistic qualities of the work that suggest the reason why.
In some ways, this tantalising piece of music shows the direction in which Enescu’s style was advancing during this period. Rhythmical fluidity is one of the essential elements here: in the piano part there are elaborate cross-rhythms, and in the violin line there are frequent shifts between dotted rhythms, triplets, and other more complex subdivisions of the beat. The linear fluency of the writing is so pronounced that it tends towards a kind of seamlessness, which begins to rob the melody of its melodic function. (A similar criticism can be made of the Symphonie concertante.) It is difficult to tell which phrases are transitional joining-up passages, and which are the melodic statements proper. The distinction between the two is not a necessary one, of course, and it is one of the characteristic features of many of Enescu’s later works that it disappears almost entirely (the first movements of the Piano Quintet and the Third Violin Sonata are good examples of this). But in order for that to happen, a more fluid and rarefied harmonic language was needed too. In this ‘Sonata Torso’, the underlying harmonic scheme seems unable to cope with the melodic and rhythmical subtleties of the score. This problem first arises in the opening four bars, where a delicately suggestive and exploratory violin line is tied as if by its ankle to an immediately familiar sequence of bar-by-bar harmonic changes. Elsewhere the harmonies lean too closely towards some of the predictabilities of late-romantic salon music in a way that belies the rhythmical and textural originality of the writing. Not for nothing has the great Romanian composer and critic Pascal Bentoiu described this as ‘one of the most stylistically impure works Enescu ever wrote’. And yet, as Bentoiu also points out, there are passages of wonderful felicity in the delicate interplay of the instrumentation, and the final pages are exceptionally well paced and balanced. Lying as it does almost exactly half-way between the Second and Third Violin Sonatas, this work helps us to see the distinctive excellences of those sonatas in a new and even clearer light.
Noel Malcolm © 1991