George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Symphony No.1 in E flat major Op.13 (1905) [35:09]
Suite No.3, Op.27 Villageoise (1937-38) [30:44]
Romanian Rhapsody, Op.11 No.2 (1901) [14:04]
Symphony No.2, in A major Op.17 (1912-14) [57:34]
Symphony No.3, in C major Op.21 (1916-18) [54:51]
Romanian Rhapsody, Op.11 No.1 (1901) [12:57]
Leeds Festival Chorus/Simon Wright
BBC Philharmonic/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 1995-1997 CHANDOS CHAN10984X [3 CDs: 198:18]
Most composers have at least one 'trigger work'. It's the one that you hear that takes you by the heart or the tear ducts and ends up telling you that you need to hear more by this person. You might have been pretty unmoved by pieces by this composer that you have heard earlier. I heard the Romanian Rhapsodies and was attracted for a while by the flush of nationalistic colour - Stokowski's version of Enescu's First Romanian Rhapsody, say - but the colours and the glare tarnish, as does the wish to return to them.
All credit then to BBC Radio 3 again for broadcasting on 19 August 1981 what I took to be Rozhdestvensky's first recording of Enescu's First Symphony. It was this broadcast of Rozhdestvensky's late Soviet era Melodiya recording of the First Symphony that persuaded me that this composer's music was something I wanted to spend time with and precious cash exploring.
First Symphonies can be awkward cusses - difficult to love. Shostakovich's First still fails to win me over; likewise George Lloyd's; others like Sibelius and Prokofiev present no difficulties. Enescu's First is young man's music; he was only 24 at the time and the rapture of limitless possibilities shakes the music's rafters from the first movement onwards. The whooping indomitable opening represents a heroically voluptuous celebration of indefatigable youth at its rising zenith. In the later movements it sometimes has its overly relaxed moments but in full flight it is exhilaration on Speed. Compare the effect to that of the eruptively Straussian Szymanowski Concert Overture which, sadly, tends to indigestible congested textures, or to the opening of Mahler 3 in Horenstein's Unicorn recording. Enescu holds onto the clarity even through the most emotionally intense and accelerating moments. Contrary to what I had first feared Rozhdestvensky had lost none of the heat of his Melodiya recording and the BBCPO were with him to a man and woman. The Symphony is stunningly recorded by Chandos – as, indeed, are all these works. The venue is the wonderful bloom-and-boost acoustic of Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester - now gone. All these recordings were made there.
The large-scale five-movement Suite No.3, Op.27 Villageoise from three decades after the First Symphony is lush and plush, zesty and fleet-footed although the third and fourth movements are more hauntedly expressionistic and nostalgic. There's a touch of Rózsa's Hungarian Sketches, Kodály's Summer Evening and Zádor's Variations on a Hungarian Folksong. The Suite's movement titles are: I Rural springtime; II Children playing outdoors; III The old childhood house in the sunset, Shepherd. Migrating birds and crows. The Vesper bell; IV Moonlight upon the river and V Rustic dances. You are never in any doubt that Enescu specified a large orchestra, not least when Rozhdestvensky makes hay with the composer's magnificent blazing conclusion.
Onwards and upwards. The second CD opens proceedings with the lesser-known of the Romanian Rhapsodies. It too is well upholstered yet cleanly rather than densely orchestrated. Enescu has no intention of creating any illusion of a small village band and a blazing camp-fire. It has its possessed and blazing moments but ends with a gentle misty glow and a supine gesture from the flute.
The Second Symphony is the longest of the three numbered symphonies and was written just before the start of the Great War. It plays for a stone's-throw short of an hour. The 20-minute first movement often bursts its banks with a Straussian tumult. This usually subsides into a golden dream and does so without a shiver, which is how the movement ends. This is not so much a whimper as a sustained and satisfying exhaled sweetened breath. The Andante giusto is a tad mournful - not tragic but just a controlled and even pleasing melancholy. The third movement us a stuttering march that grunts and grumbles its way forward and rises to a strangely changeable fourth movement, Allegro vivace. The two concluding movements each carry the label 'marziale'. The fourth movement feels indulgent, arteries clogged and constantly slipping and shifting from heroic to sad to jaunty. The language is constantly peripatetic between elements of Tchaikovsky, Bax, Strauss, Delius and Scriabin. It does not feel like a success and it's notable that it only had one performance during Enescu's lifetime. It is a work that draws you back because you know it will be an interesting rather than an instantly compelling experience - an exercise in luxuriously over-blown rodomontade.
In contrast with CD2 the third CD opens with the Symphony and closes with a Romanian Rhapsody. This is in fact the Romanian Rhapsody which charms, curtsies, bubbles and races. It benefits from this more feet-on-earth approach. It is also light on the sort of glare and neon the work usually attracts.
As for the 55-minute Third Symphony it is in three movements and deploys a vocalising choir in the last of these. The writing in the first movement is more angular while not a whit less opulent. Although it feels more taut than the Second Symphony - written only four years earlier - it remains essentially a work of orchestral spendthrift distinguished by progress made by instinct and impulse rather than to any immediately evident firm ground-plan. At about 14:00 and 16:00 one of the themes from the First Symphony is candidly recalled. The second movement - marked Vivace ma non troppo - proceeds as if charting a meditative dream-journey - expansively relaxed at one moment and at others purposeful. The final Lento - again carrying the qualifier ma non troppo - sinks further into the golden dream. The whole work has the feel of a cocooned hymn or invocation to some wished-for serene utopia. The writing has a Scriabin-like air about it - one that is also found in the early symphonies of Ivanovs, Myaskovsky and Cuclin. That mood is perhaps not astonishing given the war from which Europe and Enescu was emerging. It was premiered in Bucharest in 1919, conducted by the composer.
The notes, which are work specific, have been gathered in from the original releases and are by Paul Banks. They are ideally supportive of the listening experience. The original is in English but there are translations into German and French.
The superior sound secured by the classic Chandos team does justice to these ambitiously passionate and self-indulgent scores and performances.
There are other Enescu cycles including ones by Lawrence Foster and Christian Mandeal but they are not directly comparable. In addition CPO have been busy recording recovered symphonic works beyond the initially numbered three piloted here (reviewreview).
For the record I should add that when initially released these discs were Symphony No. 1 and Suite No. 3 CHAN 9507; Romanian Rhapsody No. 2 and Symphony No. 2 CHAN 9537; Symphony No. 3 and Romanian Rhapsody No. 1. CHAN 9633.
Now you can have all three in a well-appointed box, with full notes and each in its individual stiff-card sleeve for about Ł16.00. Chandos do these things well. I continue to keep my fingers crossed that they will issue Järvi's glorious Detroit Symphony recordings of American classics in the same way. Although multiply reissued they could easily stand this treatment.