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George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Piano Quintet, Op.29 (1940?) [35:12]
Piano Quartet, No.2, Op.30 (1944) [27:47]
The Solomon Ensemble: Anne Solomon (Violin), Andrew Roberts (Violin II), Ralf Ehlers (Viola), Rebecca Gilliver (Cello) and Dominic Saunders (Piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England (22-24 September, 2001)
NAXOS 8.557159 [62:58]

George Enescuís name is well known for having been Yehudi Menuhinís teacher and the composer of Roumanian Rhapsody No.1, but the rest of his output is little known. This disc is to be welcomed to help redress the balance.

Considering that he died as recently as 1955 it is interesting that two of my books give different places of birth in Roumania for him and the CD insert simply says he was born in Moldavia, which presumably refers to the easternmost province of Roumania that borders on present-day Moldova. Neither do they all agree with the year or day of birth, though most generally agree with a day in August 1881.

However, what they all agree on is that Enescu was an outstanding musician in every sense - a superb violinist and competent pianist, whose ability to play all of Wagner at the keyboard from memory, is one of those jaw-dropping facts that I always find helps me to listen in a different way to the work under review. Menuhin tells of Enescu being able to play Ravelís new violin sonata from memory after only two brief readings with the composer. His phenomenal memory enabled him to hold the complete works of Bach there, which sounds so utterly fantastic when one considers how many hours it would take just to listen to them all!

A violin pupil of Vieuxtemps and of composition with Massenet and Fauré, Enescu was a true child prodigy who had a concert of his music performed in Paris at the age of 16. By the time he was 18 when he won first violin prize at the Paris Conservatoire, he was already known as a composer, his "Poème Roumaine" having proved especially successful. However, though he wanted so much to be known as a composer rather than purely a recitalist his work found success only among a small handful of admirers and fellow composers. In all he wrote relatively few works and barely more than a dozen after World War I.

The liner notes say that "Enescuís mature work is of a density of thought and subtlety of expression to demand repeated listening". I found I had to listen to the Piano Quintet many times before it began to grow on me. Even the principal themes are understated to such an extent that it took a long time to identify them, even though I had recognised them subconsciously. Also reading and re-reading the liner notes, I began to wonder if we were listening to the same piece as, after discussing the first movement, they talk about "the succeeding Vivace ma non troppo" movement as if it were the 2nd whereas it is the third and final movement, there being no mention of the second movement at all. In fact the second movement is a perfect example of what the liner note writer describes as Enescuís way of composing in which "his themes, while rarely drawing attention to themselves, are capable of far-reaching transformations both across and between movements". I find such music difficult to listen to, not because the music itself is over-complex but I like themes that leap out and grab me, that pull me into the work. I remember, as a child telling my mother that I did not like chamber music and she explained that it was an acquired taste that came with time. She was right of course and I now find it more emotionally stimulating than any other genre, but, nevertheless I respond best to strong themes like those in Miklos Rózsaís String quartet, Op.22 (1950) whose second movement is a captivating "Scherzo in modo Ongarese", or the gypsy-inspired themes in Ravelís work. I found it hard to identify the folk influences in these works of Enescu. They are said to be there but I cannot detect them.

The Piano Quintet was, unfortunately, never performed in Enescuís lifetime, a fact that I always find extremely sad. It was not performed until 1964 in Bucharest.

Composed between July 1943 and May 1944, the Piano Quartet No. 2 received its premiere in Washington D.C. on 31st October, 1947, thanks to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the indefatigable champion of chamber music in the first half of the 20th. Century. It is a work that requires repeated listening though it reveals itself more readily than the Piano Quintet does. It is a more immediately accessible work though Richard Whitehouse, in the liner notes calls it "the most searching of Enescuís mature pieces". It was written in memory of Fauré and marked the twentieth anniversary of his death.

The themes are subtle and understated as before but are more easily identifiable, and the Roumanian folk roots are clearer to hear that in the quintet, witness track 4, 8 minutes into the first movement just at its conclusion and picked up again immediately the second movements begins. The final movement breaks the lyrical quality and brings the work to a close with a powerfully stated theme. Once again this is a work that requires a lot of listening to reveal its layers of distilled themes. They elude the listener during the first few hearings.

The Solomon Ensemble is a clearly committed advocate of this music and that makes for powerfully felt performances. They are a group I look forward to hearing again, perhaps in works I am more familiar with.

Steve Arloff

see also review by Hubert Culot and Kevin Sutton



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