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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]

As the likes of Brahms and Mendelssohn have demonstrated in the past, the erudition of contrapuntal thinking does not necessarily preclude an eye for melody. The brilliant orchestral works of the Romanian composer George Enescu prove that this breed of approach has its place in the context of the socio-cultural dissonance of the 20th century, too. And thus the composer’s comment regarding his own compositions, that “No matter what its length, a piece may be called a musical composition if it has a line, a melody or – even better – overlapping melodies”, is justified.

That being said, his late orchestral essays and his numbered symphonies, like his ambitious and sole opera Oedipe, are not as immediately accessible as his popular Romanian Rhapsodies. This set of 3 CDs, then, by setting down a wide range of orchestral works of Enescu, fruitfully portrays the depths and widths of talent the composer was capable of manoeuvring.

Written after four unnumbered works in the genre as a student, Symphony no. 1 has something of the spirit of the sound world of Wagner, Franck and Schmidt. Chromatically grandiose melodies emerge from the shades of contrapuntally thick Regeresque orchestration. Especially memorable is the poised Lent where individual lines of instrumental voices are conjoined to create a series of profound melodies, but so is the finale’s conclusion in its Brucknerian loftiness. Yet comparisons with other composers shortchange the actual substance. In this busily melodious creation, the level of originality is astonishing, especially given that the work was written by a 24-year-old composer.

It took Enescu nine years to complete another orchestral work after the composition of his first symphony. The first two movements of the Symphony 2 inherit something of the busy melodiousness of the first symphony. If the folk-like theme of the Vivace is beautiful in it sonorous sensuousness, the soaring melancholy – la Myaskovsky – of the Andante giusto provides an air of contemplation. A march-like opening sets off the ambitious last movement. Themes from past movements can be heard lurking in this new terrain, in a movement inundated with varying textures of colour and mood. For all the aggrandizement of this last movement, however, a sense of patchiness does not dissolve even after multiple listening.

In its adoption of wordless chorus in the backdrop of a sea of a chromaticism, Symphony no. 3 may resemble Ravel’s Daphnis et Chlo in form. Yet the underlying spirit of Enescu’s symphony is far more troubled and violent than that of its elusive and fairy-tale-like French counterpart. Unease pervades the Moderato, followed by a Vivace where eerie utterances develop into outcries of belligerent vehemence. The ethereal and expansive Lento – accompanied by a wordless chorus – looks up to a better world, past the anguish of the past. Its unusual structure of a Lento-marked finale as well as its unconventional scoring notwithstanding, the symphony is by far the most emotionally mature and coherent of the numbered symphonies of Enescu. In this darkness-to-light narrative, a gentle uplift visits the listener upon encountering the peaceful conclusion.

Enescu was to conceive two more numbered symphonies, although both were left unfinished by the time of his death (both were completed by Pascal Bentoiu, and subsequently recorded on the CPO label). The Suite No.3 ‘Villageoise’ of 1937-1938, then, is one of the most notable orchestral works Enescu completed after his third symphony. As the title of each movement indicates – Rural springtime, Children playing outdoors, Rustic dances, etc. – the work evokes a day in a congenial Romanian village. While the texture is less severe compared to that of the symphonies and themes are rarely developed, the Romanian folk-tune-inspired melodies are presented and interwoven together with sincerity, imagination and deep feeling.

By far the most popular set of works composed by Enescu, the two Romanian Rhapsodies are appealing for their simplicity of design and expression. Romanian dances and melodies – some of which are direct quotations of existing folk melodies – pan out works of naturally flowing gaiety and vivacity. These early works reflect Enescu’s will for music of a distinctly Romanian character, resulting in the composer’s forgoing Western compositional techniques he had learned in Vienna and Paris. While the extroverted first rhapsody may be more memorable in its directness, the second rhapsody has much allure in its poignant lyricism. This being said, Enescu’s supposed grudge toward these massively popular works is understandable, for they bear little resemblance to the mature and elaborate musical syntax Enescu was to nurture in his future works.

There is little doubt of Enescu’s genius and originality. Underneath his works there is always a deep pulsing will of optimism and faith. Even though his mature orchestral works may come as convoluted at times, the first and third symphonies are gems of their own kind.

Under the baton of Rozhdestvensky, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra have a distinctively soviet contour, with astringent strings and vivid orchestral attacks. Compared to Lintu’s recent recording of Enescu’s symphonies with the Tampere Philharmonic (Ondine), Rozhdestvensky’s renditions are more spacious and expressive. One could have wished for a tad more clarity in the sound. Also, a tapping noise can be heard at around 5:50 of the second movement of the third symphony. Given the overall achievement, however, these caveats are largely insignificant.

Young-Jin Hur
Twitter: @yjhur1885

Previous review: Rob Barnett : Dan Morgan (download)


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