“If it is possible to the reader to imagine a man with an encyclopaedic mind which never forgot anything he heard, or read, or saw in the course of his lifetime and could recall instantaneously and play in the most incandescent way any work from Bach, Wagner to Bartók; if the reader could imagine that mind allied to the most generous and selfless of hearts in a human being with a nobility and beauty of build, of presence, romantic in the lineaments of his face, and always propelled by a creative genius whether in speaking, teaching, conducting, playing the violin, the piano, and, very particularly, in composing, the image would still not be complete; a man full of humour (and a most amusing caricaturist) as well as deep philosophy, conversant with the languages and literatures of Europe and England, a man imbued with the highest forms of chivalry and fundamental earth-loving patriotism – this would be the teacher I had …”– This moving plea from Yehudi Menuhin, found in his preface to the first Englishlanguage book on Enescu (“George Enescu – His Life and Music” by Noel Malcolm, published 1990 by Toccata Press), is only one of many authentic testimonials of astounded contemporaries who keep the memory of this Romanian composer’s genius.
The second and last CD in the world’s first recording of Enescu’s complete works for violin and piano contains not only two sonatas, but also several shorter works. The Ballade of the precocious fourteen-year-old, composed in Paris in 1895, appears in the form of a small, perfect pearl in three parts. Its dramatic middle section contrasts with the inspired violin cantilena of the outer parts, whose accompaniment is modeled on the Baroque basso continuo style. The Tarentelle was written in the same year and is recorded) here for the first time together with the Hora Unirei. The first is an unpublished work, of which fortunately a copy of the manuscript exists, and appears to capture the spirit of the youngBrahms cloaked in the chorale-like B section ofEnescu’s music. The Hora Unirei of 1917 (“hora”is a Rumanian peasant dance) exhibits none ofthe peculiarities of Enescu’s other compositions, who at this time had completed two symphonies and orchestral suites, among other works, and had already anticipated elements of his later style in the innovative Carillon Nocturne.
It was in Parisin 1903 that he wrote his Impromptu concertant,a piece of that genre of “morceaux de concours”which Enescu also dedicated to other instruments(Concert Piece for viola, Légende fortrumpet, Cantabile et Presto for flute, AllegrodeConcert for chromatic harp). The title and theperformance instruction “chaleureux” (warmly)are very aptly chosen for this expertly interwovenimprovisation, in which the two instrumentsentwinewith each other like an arabesque enwrappedin the magic of post-Romantic harmony.Although the works of his youth lay but a few years back, it is more closelyrelated to the nostalgic Andante malinconico of 1951, which Enescu composed as morceau de déchiffrage for a sight-reading competition at the Paris Conservatory. This moving, melancholically enmeshed, even mystical adieu with a fin de siècle character is the composer’s farewell to the genre of violin and piano, as if he had a premonition of his death from Bechterew’s disease four years later.
The First Violin Sonata, dated 1897, is the first of five major compositions (three sonatas, a torso sonata and the Impressions d’Enfance) and one that is not very representative of Enescu’s work. Nonetheless, this first-born violin sonata by the sixteen-year-old composer already reveals a masterly handling of form. His early instruction at the Vienna Conservatory is bearing its first fruits, as is his study of Beethoven’s sonata form, and Enescu effortlessly integrates a sweeping fugato into both the second and third movements, as if in homage to Bach. However, the highly virtuoso piano setting, riddled with tremolos, resembles the piano reduction of a symphony more than a sonata. Thus one feels reminded of the Sturm und Drang in the early piano sonatas of his third model, Brahms (“Brahms, Bach and Beethoven – my gods!”).
Enescu’s Third Violin Sonata, subtitled “dans le caractère populaire roumain” (“in Romanian folk character”), is his most frequently performed work after the two Romanian Rhapsodies and was already recognized as a “prophetic masterpiece” (Bernard Gavoty) in the composer’s lifetime. As in the case of the Impressions d’Enfance (1940), what is striking about this sonata, published in 1926, is the graphic aspect of the score, which Menuhin considered to be the “greatest achievement in musical notation” of the time.
Quite rightly, Enescu expert Pascal Bentoiu notes that the musical translation of these “graphic wonders” opens up a world of sound whose variety and majesty had hardly ever been reached in any other work of the violin/piano genre at the time the composition was completed. One of the reasons for this is the way both instruments are used as a medium for portraying other spheres of sound, so to speak. For instance, the piano suggests Romanian folk instruments for long stretches of time, such as cymbal, lute and pizzicato double bass, and the violin, in the birdsong episode in the middle of the second movement, imitates those musicians (“lautari” in Romanian) who themselves imitate birdsong when playing the violin (Dinicus’ lark – Romanian “ciocarlia” – calls a greeting from the tavern, you might say), just as the high point of the first movement in the piano is based on a gong. The hypnotic effect of the piano’s repeated unisons and fifths in the second movement, conjuring up the constant chirping of crickets on a summer’s night (beginning) or the monastic pounding board calling the faithful to prayer (monotonous arpeggios of fifths) was unheard of.
Moreover, the violin personifies a poignant vox humana at the dramatically decisive points of the composition. Just listen to the thematic octave sequences at the high point of the second movement, and especially human lamentation of that final drama of the soul, which abruptly puts an end to the “dance festival” in the third movement. Furthermore, not only is the notation of the quarter-tones for the violin fascinating, but also the unique ornamentation in this music, its mythical-narrative dimension (the work begins with a parlando-rubato “once upon a time …”, if you will) and its improvisational character, which stands in apparent contradiction to the detailed precision of the notation. After so many surprises, a close analysis of the score reveals what may well be the biggest surprise of all in this composition: none of the elements I have just mentioned are used as an end in themselves, but are instead all integrated into a majestically proportioned and dramatically ingenious sonata form. Every single movement, as well as the sonata as a whole, relates an existential drama built around a recurrent theme – picking up all manner of enchanting blossoms along the way, as if en passant … This prime example of originality also possesses a deeply personal note thanks to being inspired by Romanian folklore, yet at the same time it is firmly anchored in the foundation laid by the great composers of the Western formal tradition.