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George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Symphonies Nos. 1–3 and Vox Maris
Symphony No. 1 in E flat major Op.13 (1905) [31:05]
Symphony No. 2 in A major, Op.17 (1911) [46:37]
Symphony No. 3 in C major Op.21 (1919) [49:49]
Vox Maris, symphonic poem for soprano, tenor, voices and orchestra Op.31 (1950) [26:42]
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo/Lawrence Foster (CD1)
Marius Brenciu (tenor), Catherine Sydney (soprano), Choeur de chambre Les Eléments/Joël Suhubiete (CD2)
Orchestre National de Lyon/Lawrence Foster
Rec. Salle Garnier, Monte-Carlo 24-25 Sept 1990 (No.1); 22-25  Sept 1992 (No.2); Auditorium de Lyon, Lyon 10-14  Sept 2004 (No.3, Vox Maris) DDD
CD1 originally issued on EMI Classics CDC 7547632
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 86604 2 5 [77:49+76:32]



For most music lovers, George Enescu still amounts to Romanian Rhapsody No.1. That exhilarating squib has been recorded scores of times, but it's only recently that the great Romanian's later output has made international inroads. As with Janáček, Enescu’s music was for many years his homeland’s best-kept secret. A victim of his own talent, his fame as violinist, teacher and conductor left little time for self-promotion; and unlike Janáček, he lacked a Mackerras to take his goods to the dominant Anglo-Saxon market. Until recently most recordings of his work emanated from Eastern Europe.

An exception: they ordered these things differently in France, where “Georges Enesco” partly lived and worked from his student years until the end. If he has a performing tradition in the West, that’s where it is to be found; thus slowly, unobtrusively, hopping between French orchestras and labels, his American champion Lawrence Foster has been able to build up a set of Enescu’s major orchestral works on disc. EMI’s brand-new Lyon recording of Vox Maris and Symphony No. 3 is coupled with a reissue of his Monte-Carlo Nos.1 and 2, to more or less complete his survey.

The field is stronger now than it was when that CD emerged in 1993, at which time competition consisted of a heterogeneous collection on Marco Polo. Since then we’ve had two fine orchestral intégrales from Romanian orchestras, under Horia Andreescu (Electrecord/Olympia) and Cristian Mandeal (Arte Nova,) as well as an inferior one from the Philharmonia Moldava under Alexander Lascae on Ottavo. There’s also a lacklustre cycle from Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos. Great as Enescu’s symphonies and suites are, that Anglo/Russian combo proved that they are not unsinkable where idiom and style are glossed over, or where recording takes place in a superannuated bathtub.

How does the French/American team measure up? Symphony No. 1 (1905) is the shortest and easiest challenge, grounded as it is in procedures familiar from Brahms and Franck, though the young Enescu’s intensity and rhythmically subtle Romanian folk melodic models make it sound startlingly original. Foster succeeds admirably in this summary work of Enescu’s first maturity, pacing and balancing its three movements well. EMI’s recording has plenty of sap, and if the final impression is less exhilarating than Mandeal’s – let alone George Georgescu’s dazzling 1942 classic, vividly recorded in Bucharest by occupying German engineers – the Monte-Carlo string and woodwind playing is passionate, poetic and properly romantic throughout.

One of the hallmarks of Enescu’s development was the vigorous dialectic carried through each and every work, as he wrestled to invest 19th century bottles with the wine of modern sensibility. Symphony No. 2 (1914) is in some ways a transitional work, in which Enescu develops his special brand of melos within the constraints of symphonic sonata form. Exotic, melodic flowers bloom and expand, shooting up to the sky and sending tendrils into the earth, to create what the critic Pascal Bentoiu described as a “magic jungle.” Containment is on a mammoth scale, with the last movement functioning partly as development section for the first two, counterpointing their ideals against limpingly grotesque martial material and a near-Ivesian march. Beauty may triumph, but the ghostly horrors of the time are not easily laid to rest in this enigmatic, intricate, impressively lovely work.

The symphony’s profusion of inner voices are not easy to balance, but Foster deploys his forces well. Their final climax, with manic piano helter-skeltering through powerful string and woodwind cantilenas, is visceral stuff. Mandeal encompasses a wider range of moods and allows us to hear even more of the detail, occasionally at the expense of that structural cohesion which Andreescu manages best of all. None of them evoke the intensity of line conjured by Ion Baciu, live with his Iasi Philharmonic on a long-vanished Electrecord Stereo LP; but Foster’s Monte-Carlo version holds its head high as a good all-round modern choice lacking, perhaps, the last degree of character.

Tacking a Lisztian Faust/Dante programme onto the Symphony No. 3 (1918) is limiting, sure, but it may serve to help listeners get their bearings in this gargantuan epic. A questing, lyrical and heroic first movement (Faust/Earth/Purgatory) is followed by a sardonic, chaotic scherzo (Mefisto/Hell) and a serene finale (Gretchen/Paradise) where the huge orchestra is supplemented by a full, wordless choir. Despite its religioso smells-and-bells, organ and all, the miracle of that last movement is to present no bland simile of heavenly stasis but a warmly moving celebration of creativity and change. The Third sees Enescu refine his syntax without losing the fertile motivic prolixity of the Sedond. It is the summit of his orchestral achievement, one of the greatest 20th century symphonies, and it repays countless auditions.

Two recordings stand out: Ion Baciu’s rough, mistily recorded but ecstatic reading with the Cluj-Napoca Philharmonic and Choir on Marco Polo,  and – in infinitely better sound – Mandeal’s powerfully characterised and magnificently played Bucharest version. These are hard acts to follow, but there’s plenty to admire about Foster’s just tempi, the skill with which he shapes and clarifies Enescu’s textures, his sure feeling for style. The orchestral change of air is more problematic, the opulent lushness of Monaco’s Salle Garnier hardly upstaged by the flatter acoustic of the Auditorium de Lyon. This difference is reflected in the playing. Despite Foster’s grasp there’s a hint of reserve about the Lyon orchestra after their Mediterranean counterparts, and this limits the emotional range of the performance despite its admirable accuracy as to bare notes. Dynamic cut and thrust, idiomatic passion and character are much better communicated in the rival Romanian accounts.

The shortcomings are less marked in Foster’s descent into the terrifying maelstrom of Vox Maris (1929/54,) Enescu’s psychological seascape of oblivion and despair, a sort of musical equivalent of Goya’s Perro Semihundido (more prosaically known in English as “The Drowning Dog”). The grey swell of orchestral textures and mounting encroachment of the fatal storm are nicely calibrated by conductor and recording engineers, and Cardiff Singer of the World Marius Brenciu sings the brief traveller’s declamation poignantly. It’s a blemish that he, the off-stage chorus and Catherine Sydney’s unnecessarily operatic shriek of drowning despair at the climax are too forwardly placed to make the intended effect of putting humanity in perspective. A pity, for otherwise Foster’s reading is on a level with Mandeal’s vertiginous account of a monochrome, forbidding masterpiece.

Lawrence Foster deserves much praise for his championing of this towering and still under-prized master. His recording of Enescu’s operatic magnum opus, Oedip is clear first choice, more subtle than the older Electrecord version, and with his star-studded cast singing in the original French. His recordings of the suites, sundry orchestral and concertante works (on Erato Ultima Double and Claves) are also enjoyable, if not so consistently focused as this symphonic cycle. If it’s the complete works you’re after, Cristian Mandeal’s super-budget set remains the clear first choice. But whatever the reservations – especially concerning the new Lyon Third – Lawrence Foster’s competitively-priced and conveniently packaged double album merits a place in any serious Enescu collection.

Christopher Webber



Complete Symphonies, Vox Maris: Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, Orchestre National de Lyon et. al. (EMI 2-CD 7243 5 86604 2 5, 4/05 rec. 1990, 1992, 2004)

Complete Orchestral Suites, Romanian Rhapsodies, Poème Roumain Op.1, Symphonie Concertante for cello and orchestra Op.8: Franco Maggio-Ormezowski (cello), Jean-Paul Barrellon (oboe), Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo (Erato Ultima 2-CD 3984-24247-2, 9/98 rec. 1984-7)

Oedipe, Op. 23: José van Dam, Barbara Hendricks, Nicolai Gedda, Gabriel Bacquier, soloists, Orféon Donostiarra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo (EMI Classics 2-CD box set CDS 7540112, 11/90)

Chamber Symphony, Decet, Two Intermezzi: Lausanne Chamber Orchestra (Claves 508803, 7/88)



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