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George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Complete works for piano solo
Raluca Stirbat (piano)
rec. 1-4 September 2010, 6-12 January 2013, April and June 2013, Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst, Wien
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD98.060 [3 CDs: 61:41 + 73:38 + 66:00]

Enescu was apparently as accomplished a pianist as a violinist but it has taken a long time to get his work for the piano into focus (see survey by Evan Dickerson). This set appears to be the first to contain all his piano works, and it claims several first recordings, as well as one work, the Sonatensatz, which was discovered only after Noel Malcolm published his indispensable handbook to the composer in 1990. Indeed, the history of Enescu’s compositions is one of works of which some were completed, some left unfinished or sketched, and some which were lost only to turn up decades later. This was partly because of the political vicissitudes through which he lived but also because he was a meticulous craftsman who repeatedly pored over and adjusted his works until he was satisfied. An Enescu score is remarkable for the detail with which he notates his intentions and it presents a corresponding challenge to his interpreters.

Of the three discs, the first finds him still finding his way in the world of fin-de-siècle Paris. The first piano suite, Dans le style ancien, is the eighteenth century seen through late nineteenth century eyes, like Busoni’s versions of Bach. Enescu was sixteen when he wrote it. The gem here is the Fugue, which aroused the admiration of Ravel. The Prelude and Scherzo are also Brahmsian but with a demonic touch in the Scherzo which rather suggests Liszt. The Barcarolle is closer to Chopin, as one might expect, with a long melody which unfolds over a repeating bass with many subtle modulations. The other shorter pieces on this first disc are closer to the Liszt of the Années de pèlerinage. The Prelude and Fugue in C date from rather later, and might have been intended for the second piano suite. By this time he has found his idiom, which has accepted some influence from the French impressionists into a basically Germanic language.

That second suite, subtitled Des cloches sonores, opens the second disc. The titles suggest a suite by Debussy or Ravel, and it has been compared to Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. Enescu acknowledged the influence, but with his tongue in his cheek since Ravel’s suite dates from fourteen years later than his own. A more plausible influence is that of Fauré, whose pupil he had been. The Sarabande is far more energetic and full-blooded than the corresponding piece by Debussy and it rises to a Lisztian climax. The Pavane is the most interesting piece with its very free and flexible solo melodic line above a subtle and varying accompaniment. This is apparently close to the kind of Romanian folk-music known as the doina.

The Nocturne is a long and somewhat unsatisfactory work, with outer sections fairly close to what one might expect from the title, though quite heavily written. There's a sinister middle section which quite belies the title. Enescu did not publish this work, perhaps because he was not satisfied with it, but it anticipates some of the effects of his later music in its rhythmic complexity.

The Pièces Impromptues pour piano were also unpublished, in this case because Enescu lost the manuscript, which turned up only after his death. This is not really a suite, though it is sometimes referred to as the third piano suite, but more a set of individual pieces. In these works the Lisztian idiom has become modified in the direction of Ravel. These are charming works, very varied in their moods. Perhaps the most interesting is the final Carillon nocturne, in which Enescu captures the sound of bells heard across mountains with note clusters, unlike Ravel’s La vallée des cloches but anticipating not only the end of Stravinsky’s Les noces, with its final bell sounds evoked by four pianos, but also Messiaen’s Noël from the Vingt Regards.

The third disc opens with another discovery. This Sonatensatz is the first version of the first movement of the Piano Sonata Op. 24. No. 1, which was found in the Enescu Museum in Bucharest in 1993. This is a dark, brooding work, difficult to follow because of the constant development of its principal themes and restless modulation. However, it was well worth rescuing, though one can understand why the composer rejected it.

Between this and the two sonatas is the tiny Pièce sur le nom de Fauré, written to honour the composer for his seventy-seventh birthday. It is a touching tribute, short and characterful, and would be a good piece for pianists to try, except that, like most of the works in this set, it is not in print.

We come then finally to the two big sonatas, Enescu’s most important works for the medium. They are very different. The first sonata begins with a powerful movement, reworked from the earlier Sonatensatz, terser and more varied but no less haunting. The Presto which follows is a kind of Prokofievan scherzo. The finale is an Andante which draws on Romanian folk music, with ambiguous tonality and bell sounds.

There is no Sonata Op. 24 No. 2. Enescu said he had it in his head but he never wrote it down and after his death only a few sketches were found.

The third sonata is in contrast to the first. It is predominantly light-hearted with a first movement which skitters and glitters and jumps about. The slow movement features a long, lyrical and rhythmically irregular line which is festooned with decorations and ornaments. The printed page – for this work is actually in print – is quite amazing in the complexity of the writing and the precision of the notation and instructions. It is a most beautiful piece. The finale is a kind of delicate toccata, full of verve and excitement with a good deal of use of fast repeated notes.

The young Romanian pianist Raluca Stirbat has made a particular study of the composer, including writing a doctoral dissertation on his piano works, so she is well placed to record them complete. She clearly knows them thoroughly and from the inside. Her technique is up to their considerable technical demands. She does not quite have the magical feathery touch of Lipatti in his famous recording of the third sonata but she has clearly listened to it and has allowed herself a similar flexibility though without simply copying him. She is decently recorded and writes her own, very helpful notes. Her main competitor is Luisa Borac in some well-received Avie discs, issued separately (vol. 1; vol. 2). Borac omits most of the early works on Stirbat’s set but adds a piano version of the third orchestral suite, titled Villageoise. I would love to hear a pianist such as Hamelin, Anderszewski or Tiberghien tackle the two sonatas in particular but for someone who wants a complete survey of Enescu’s fascinating piano works this will do very well.

Stephen Barber

Enescu on Hänssler
Complete works for violin and piano
Complete works for cello and piano

Detailed contents

CD 1 [61:41]
First piano suite, ‘Dans le style ancien’, in G minor Op. 3 No. 1 (1897) [17:39]
Prélude et Scherzo in F sharp minor (1896) [9:57]
Barcarolle in B flat major (1897) [5:04]
La Fileuse in D major (1897) [4:45]
Impromptu in A flat major (1898) [4:30]
Regrets in G flat major (1898) [3:53]
Impromptu in C major (1900) [5:48]
Prélude et Fugue in C major (1903) [10:00]

CD 2 [73:38]
Second piano suite, ‘Des cloches sonores’, in D major Op. 10 No. 2 (1903) [22:38]
Nocturne in D flat major (1907) [17:11]
Pièces Impromptues Op. 18 (1913/1916) [33:49]

CD 3 [66:00]
Sonatensatz in F sharp minor (1912)
Pièce sur le nom de Fauré (1922) [1:50]
Sonata in F sharp minor Op. 24 No.1 (1924) [24:12]
Sonata in D major Op. 24 No. 3 (1935) [23:17]


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