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George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Complete Works for Cello and Piano
Sonata for cello and piano in F minor, Op 26/1 (1898) [34:12]
Nocturne et Saltarello for cello and piano (1897) [6:37]
Allegro for cello and piano in F minor (c. 1898) with a coda by Rudolf Leopold [9:45]
Sonata for cello and piano in C major, Op 26/2 (1935) [27:50]
Rudolf Leopold (cello), Raluca Stirbat (piano)
rec. June 2020, Bösendorfer Klaviermanufaktur, Neustadt, Austria

Pablo Casals on George Enescu: “The greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”.

Enescu only wrote three very early and one later piece for cello and piano. The best-known among his twenty or so chamber works are String Octet Op 7 (1900) and Wind Decet (Dixtuor à vents) Op 14 (1906). Another piece sometimes listed in this category is the late Chamber Symphony for twelve solo instruments Op 33 (1954). Enescu gained world renown as a violinist and prestigious orchestra conductor. He was also skilled on the piano and organ, and evidently he played the cello. His most substantial cello work is the Symphonie concertante for cello and orchestra (1901), a contrast with a more personal and intimate compositional style in the two cello sonatas.

Enescu’s formal music education began in 1888-1893 at the Vienna Conservatory. He continued his study in 1895-1899 at the Paris Conservatory: composition with Fauré and Massenet, violin with Joseph Joachim. His Cello Sonata in F minor (he described it as a Sonata for piano and cello) comes from 1898, a few years before his two popular Romanian Rhapsodies. He was markedly inspired by the work of the great late-Romantic composers. This attractive work does sound like an early piece, but the piano part is not merely ancillary. The lengthy opening movement Allegro molto moderato has a windswept, rather inhospitable character. The Molto andante is also noteworthy, mostly reflective with an undertow of anxiety never far away.

The 1887 Nocturne et Saltarello is clearly a student work. Cellist Léon d'Einbrodt and pianist Louise Murer premiered it the same year in Paris. Believed lost, it was discovered in a private collection in 1994. The Nocturne is an Andante, a noble and engaging night piece. The unruly Saltarello marked Vivace, played here with keen resolve, is a stark contrast.

The attractive Allegro for cello and piano in F minor is Enescu’s early attempt at the opening movement of the first Cello Sonata. Left incomplete, it was consigned to a drawer, but fortuitously unearthed in 1980 at the Romanian Academy in Bucharest. Composer Hans Peter Türk finished off an edition of the score with a coda, but this recording includes another coda, which cellist Rudolf Leopold has based on a contemporaneous Enescu song Schlaflos with a clear thematic likeness to the Allegro. The almost ten-minute piece offers a fascinating mix of moods, from near-frenzied and nervous anticipation to calm introspection.

Some thirty-seven years separate the two cello sonatas but Enescu gave them the same opus number. The C major Sonata was completed in 1935, a few months before the belated premiere of the opera Oedipe. Enescu dedicated the four-movement Sonata to Pablo Casals, but its premiere was given the next year in Paris by cellist Diran Alexanian with Enescu at the piano.

Enescu was at the pinnacle of his career, and this key work is an example of his mature compositional style. He incorporates, to a telling effect, Romanian folk music into the Austro/German tradition. Leopold and Stirbat respond naturally in a performance that feels entirely spontaneous. There is a gripping rendition of the unsettling second-movement Allegro agitato, non troppo mosso which Pascal Bentoiu, the author of a detailed analysis of Enescu’s masterworks, describes as a Scherzo. The musicians create a devilish character amid the murk and anguish. The next movement, Andantino cantabile, senza lentezza, also receives an intense reflection.

The performers may have a special interest in these works: Leopold hails from Vienna where the very young Enescu studied, and Stirbat is Romanian like the composer. This well-matched duo delve into the centre of these works in assured performances of wholehearted commitment. I would have wished for more intensity, especially to add ripeness to the romantic score of the Second Sonata. The appeal of these works is enhanced by repeated listening.

The recording at the studio of Bösendorfer Klaviermanufaktur at Neustadt, Vienna, has a satisfying clarity. The Bösendorfer concert grand has an attractive sound, though the cello with its lean tone might have been placed farther forward. The pianist has written helpful booklet essays on the chamber works themselves and on Enescu.

Enescu’s works for cello and piano may not be repertoire staple but these convincing performances demonstrate that they are worthy of praise.

Michael Cookson

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