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George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1934) [35:36]
Nuages d’Automne sur les Forêts (1935) [8:30]
Chamber Symphony [18:03]
NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover/Peter Ruzicka
rec. 26-28 and 30 August 2013 (symphony no. 4), 6-7 July 2014 (Nuages d’Automne), Groser Sendesaal, NDR Hannover; 17-18 June 2014 (Chamber symphony) at Kleiner Sendesaal, NDR Hannover.
CPO 777 966-2 [63:32]

Among East European composers of the first half of the twentieth century, Bartók has been internationally recognized for decades. Janáček joined him more recently and Szymanowski now seems to be gaining acceptance. Enescu, however, has yet to win such regard or attention. This is partly because he was Rumanian, and Rumania was behind the Iron Curtain for decades. It was also because Enescu was intensely self-critical, not promoting his works and leaving several of them in the bottom-drawer or unfinished. Indeed, he left a larger number of unfinished works than any other significant composer I know of. Of his five symphonies two were unfinished. Of his symphonic poems Isis was never orchestrated while Nuages d’Automne, included here, was intended as the first of a trilogy of which the second was never written and the third, Vox maris, barely finished. So we should be deeply grateful to Pascal Bentoiu, like Enescu a Rumanian and a composer in his own right, who has made performing versions of the unfinished works.

In fact, it turns out that Enescu had made complete short scores of the last two symphonies but had not completed orchestrating them. So Pascal Bentoiu’s task was to continue in the same sound-world, while the musical content had already been worked out. His version of the fifth symphony and Isis conducted by Peter Ruzicka came out last year (review) and now the same conductor has recorded the fourth symphony.

This begins with a formidable opening which features a particular motif which the booklet writer calls the 'x cell': a drop of a semitone followed by a minor third. This is vigorously worked out but relief comes with a slower second theme on the flute. Enescu is said to continue in classical sonata-form but this is difficult to discern, because his themes are in a constant state of flux, and developing variations seem closer to the form he uses. This movement is sombre and brooding almost throughout. The second movement features a sinuously winding chromatic melody over a martial march-like accompaniment. The melody constantly changes in timbre: I was reminded of the last of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, The obbligato recitative, in which this also happens. The tone is very melancholy. The atmosphere lightens somewhat in the last movement but not much; it is quicker with perhaps a slight hint of Prokofiev about it.

The idiom of this work is almost impossible to characterize. Think late-Romantic with sometimes a French tinge, sometimes a hint of Mahler, but developing in a modernist direction for which the nearest comparison I can find – and it is not that near – is Busoni. It is strange and haunting and indeed melancholy, rather in the way that Chausson is melancholy. It is also very impressive. We are told that Enescu himself orchestrated the first movement and about two and half minutes of the second. I can only say that Bentoiu’s work flows on seamlessly. I could not detect any inferiority in the second half of the work. This is not a curiosity but a work which can take its place in the repertoire along with Enescu’s earlier symphonies and indeed the Fifth.

Nuages d’Automne sur les Forêts is an impressionistic tone-poem and again rather melancholy. I was reminded of Bax’s November Woods, not that Enescu’s idiom is close to Bax, but they do seem to have felt something rather similar about late autumn.

The Chamber Symphony was Enescu’s last composition. I have read different accounts of how it was completed, one version being that he dictated the last few pages to his friend Marcel Mihalovici, the other being that he managed to finish it himself. The title suggests Schoenberg, and the forces he uses are similar – twelve instruments. There are four short movements. The booklet mysteriously fails to list this work at all on the front cover and consequently does not give tempo markings for the individual movements. It is however discussed in the text. The movement titles are:
- I. Molto moderato, un poco maestoso
- II. Allegretto molto moderato
- III. Adagio
- IV. Allegro molto moderato

The idiom of this work is not Schoenbergian at all except in being highly compressed. It is a strange and elusive piece, impossible to characterize but one which holds the attention. Perhaps late Fauré is not too wildly inappropriate a comparison.

This is the premiere recording of the Fourth Symphony. I am rather surprised that Cristian Mandeal, that indefatigable interpreter of his countryman’s music, has not recorded it, but Peter Ruzicka and his German forces do the work proud. Mandeal did in fact record Nuages d’Autumne but under the title Voix de la nature, the trilogy of which it was intended to be the first part (review). That disc is now hard to find. The Chamber Symphony, for all its elusiveness, has been recorded several times, including by Lawrence Foster on Claves, who, despite his very Anglo-Saxon looking name, is of Rumanian origin. The recording sounded rather artificially balanced at the very beginning but soon got sorted out, or my ears did, and thereafter it sounded quite natural.

The booklet gives useful information in three languages, the English version reading slightly strangely but comprehensibly. You probably need to be interested in Enescu already but if you are this is a find.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Michael Cookson

Evan Dickerson's survey of Enescu on disc: Part I & Part II


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