Movement 1a: Assez lent – Un peu plus animé
Movement 1b: Tempo I
Movement 2: Majestueux – Plus vite
That mature, individual tone emerged very soon, in the Second Violin Sonata, Op 6, which Enescu composed in April 1899, at the age of seventeen: it shows an absorption of Fauré’s idiom into a musical language altogether more elusive and elliptical. One of the characteristics of the Sonata was to be repeated in the works which followed: a thematic integrity, whereby the opening theme generates the material on which the structure rests. The Octet for Strings, Op 7, would be an astonishing achievement for any composer, let alone an eighteen-year-old: its forty minutes of music, in four contrasted movements, are built on a single theme; the opening statement alone lasts four minutes before it pauses to catch its breath. The Symphonie concertante, completed on 2 November 1901, takes this process further. It is in two expansive sonata-movements linked in one huge span; the first marked Assez lent (‘Quite slow’), with an intervening section, Un peu plus animé, and the second Majestueux. As well as being one of the world’s foremost violinists, a magnificent pianist and, later, a conductor good enough to have been considered as Toscanini’s successor in New York (and he was a respected baritone and organist), Enescu was also a fine cellist, and the solo writing in the Symphonie concertante reveals his complete understanding of the instrument.
The cello line emerges from a long-held chord in the winds to spin what seems to be an endless melody: as in the Octet, it is four minutes before the soloist has fully presented the idea, at which point the orchestra picks it up for restatement; only then does the development begin – though it often seems more a rumination on motivic fragments from that opening melody, the cello singing weightlessly over transparent and luminous orchestral textures. In the section marked Un peu plus animé the cello skips virtuosically over diaphanous woodwind lines, which are brought to an abrupt stop. The cello then returns to the autumnal contemplation of material transformed from that big tune, the mood occasionally lightening to allow chuckling woodwind to the fore. Now, after a brief pause, the tune emerges in bold, heraldic outline, against the prominent brass section – and its Romanian origins are clear as never before. The change of atmosphere this statement engenders suggests that the structure is in fact a vestige of four-movement symphonic form, as in the Dohnányi Konzertstück: after the opening Assez lent, the scherzo and a slow movement, we are now audibly in a finale, on the home stretch, and the cello spins off happy tourbillons of notes as it dances towards its goal. A brief, dizzying accompanied cadenza sets off whooping brass and the orchestra brings the piece to an emphatic close.
Enescu did think of calling the work a cello concerto (the manuscript solo part bears that designation) but, perhaps recognizing that he had written something very different from the standard showpiece, chose its present title instead – a gift to the critics at its poorly received first performance, when it was labelled a Symphonie déconcertante. With a century of hindsight – during which, inexplicably, cellists have generally ignored it – we can see it as an innovative, and moving, masterpiece.
from notes by Martin Anderson © 2005