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Violin Sonata 'Torso'

'Enescu: Violin Sonatas' (CDH55103)
Enescu: Violin Sonatas
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Track 4 on CDH55103 [16'02] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

Violin Sonata 'Torso'
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.

from notes by Noel Malcolm © 1991

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDH55103 track 4
Recording date
13 February 1991
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Stephen Johns
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. Enescu: Violin Sonatas (CDA66484)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: November 1991
    Deletion date: May 2002
    Superseded by CDH55103
  2. Enescu: Violin Sonatas (CDH55103)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: May 2002
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
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