George Enescu (1881–1955), far from being only Romania’s most important composer, is one of the most colourful musical personalities of the twentieth century. A real citizen of the world motivated by humanistic ideas and a patriot at the same time, he was born in the North-East of his native country but educated in Vienna and Paris, where his extraordinary talent already became apparent at a young age. Pablo Casals considered him “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”, and the Viennese press enthused about the “little Romanian Mozart”, who was admitted to the Viennese Conservatory at the tender age of seven. Enescu’s genius unites a great composer, an inspiring conductor (he was offered the position as Toscanini’s successor in New York), one of the most prominent violinists of his time, a highly esteemed pianist (whose piano technique Alfred Cortot envied), a caricaturist who wielded a formidable pen and a selfless supporter of young colleagues. His pupil Yehudi Menuhin said in a reverent judgement that “Enescu remains for me the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever experienced”.
Enescu’s legacy for violin/piano fills two CDs – besides five larger works including three Sonatas, a prodigious Sonata Movement and the “Impressions d’enfance”, there are also a few shorter ones, two of which have been recorded for the first time in this world premiere recording – and can be compared in terms of volume with that of Bartók. Here we should also consider the fact that no other composer since Beethoven has left behind a comparably significant oeuvre in this genre, as well as the fact that the golden age of the “violin sonata” was already long past. Hence the question arises as to why there has hitherto been no complete recording of these works of Enescu, a fact which can not be due to the quality of compositions, for they are obviously the work of a master. The problem of this music being so sparsely known has been aptly described by the composer and Enescu expert Pascal Bentoiu: “The musical information contained in all of Enescu’s major works is extremely dense. They are difficult, one might say too difficult for the requisites of musical performance in our day and age… They demand that their performers invest an extraordinary amount of time, work and effort – and most performers nowadays are in a great hurry. In brief, Enescu’s music demands from its listeners as well as its performers a loving approach, true devotion, a profession of faith, as it were. However, once you have pierced through its hard shell, the fruit at its core turns out to be incomparably sweet…”
Enescu worked on the violin/piano genre for more than fifty years. Leaving aside a few minor attempts at composition in early childhood (as far as manuscripts are concerned, it is difficult to build a definitive list of works), then our complete recording includes all Enescu works for violin and piano in existence. The selection of this first CD offers an exemplary overview: op. 6 written in 1899 and representing Enescu’s first stroke of genius, the so-called “Torso Sonata” dated 1911, and the “Impressions d’enfance” of 1940 with its seemingly modern style, a work which brings the program of major compositions to an end.
According to Carl Flesch, the Second Violin Sonatais “one of the most important works of all sonata literature, whose neglect is totally unjustifiable”. The mastery with which the 18 year-old Enescu constructs an incredible cathedral of sound in a manner of speaking, by concentrating on one core theme whose elements pervade the entire work, is first revealed in this op. 6. The opening theme is one of Enescu’s typical monodies, i.e. a long, metrically veiled unison full of chromatic pointers and poignant harmonic implications, where the influence of his teacher Fauré can be heard clearly. The first movement culminates in probably the most vehemently dynamic climax ever heard in a duo sonata. The second movement is also in F minor, a wistful lullaby with the character of a “doina” (a plaintive pastoral, which for Romania is like a treasure of its national culture heritage)of moving intimacy and nostalgia. The attacca transition to the finale is ingenious: the violin reflects in solitude on the melody of the movement and flows into two fifth chords reminiscent of Debussy, chords which serve as a bridge to the third movement. This has the character of a Bourrée, contains several elements of folklore – there are long stretches during which the piano imitates a gipsy cymbal, for instance – and it unites themes from all the movements. The sonata fades away with the very opening unison theme, now in a different meter and in the key of F Major.
The weighty Sonata Movement in A minor has been nicknamed by the Romanian composer Tudor Ciortea as the “Torso Sonata”, due to the fact that the body of Enescu’s manuscript suddenly breaks off one page into the beginning of a second movement (andante espressivo). His colleague Wilhelm Berger refers to the work as the “Small Sonata” and holds it to be a direct predecessor – a sort of preliminary study – of the famous Third Sonata op. 25 “dans le caractère populaire roumain”. There are stylistic parallels linking the two works, from the key of A minor and the related opening themes, to the wildly escalating drama in their final sections. The “Torso” Sonata appears to be a large tone poem in an epic-rhapsodic idiom, borne by the “parlando rubato”, so typical of Enescu. Although undeniably reminiscent of Brahms in its thematic development and piano writing technique, every page of the score breathes Enescu’s originality and personal signature.
In the Impressions d’enfance, the composer takes a very personal look at his childhood in a Romanian village. The parallel to Schumann’s idea in “Scenes from Childhood”, where childhood is likewise reflected in an adult’s mirror, is striking. This masterpiece of Enescu’s late style is a challenge to every publisher and printer, because the score contains a plethora of details related to the performing techniques and interpretation. The Impressions have the character of a suite whose images (Fiddler, Old Beggar) and scenes from the composer’s memory (Stream at the bottom of the Garden, The Bird in the Cage and the Cuckoo on the Wall) melt into a seamless, artistic unity. Its philosophical core is found in the Lullaby, the very heart of the suite (startlingly similar to the Sonata op. 6!), whose interweaving motifs influence the rest of the composition. Elements of the Lullaby appear inparticularly radiant guisein the finale, Sunrise, so that the tension arcs from the dusk of evening (Lullaby, Cricket) to the darkness of night (Moonlight through the Windows, Wind in the Chimney, Storm Outside, at Night) and back again to the light. Just like his friend Ravel in his introduction to the Tzigane, Enescu takes up the motif of the itinerant minstrel in the opening tableau of his Impressions. This miniature is the equivalent of a tonal self-portrait, one which personifies in music his own fate and restless life.