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Enescu VC 5554872
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George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Violin Concerto (1896) [33:09]
Phantasy for Piano and Orchestra (1898) [20:23]
Carolin Widmann (violin), Luiza Borac (piano)
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Peter Ruzicka
rec. 25-28 May 2021, Grober Sendesaal, NDR Hannover, Germany
Reviewed as 16-bit download from press preview
CPO 555 487-2 [53:33]

George Enescu is famous for his Romanian Rhapsodies, colorful explorations of folk music from his native Romania. Curious listeners may also know his three symphonies – substantial works of compositional and emotional complexity – and opera Oedipe. The works on this disc, however, display neither folk-inflected fire nor Late Romantic heavy weather. Instead, they reflect Enescu’s early passion for Brahms while studying composition in Vienna under legendary pedagogue Robert Fuchs.

The Violin Concerto is an unfinished work, consisting of only two movements. A Brahmsian Enescu may have been, but what strikes the ear in this concerto is his classical Viennese sensibilities. A lengthy orchestral introduction precedes the soloist’s entrance. Melodic and harmonic turns, particularly at cadences concluding phrases or sections, evoke Mozart and his contemporaries. The scoring is heavier than Mozart but nothing compared to the kaleidoscope of colors Enescu would employ later in his career. Restraint in all techniques characterizes this work – even, perhaps, restraint in inspiration.

The booklet notes point out what innovations Enescu did employ. The most unusual is the lack of a development section in the first movement, crucial to any “textbook” sonata-form movement modeled on Mozart or Haydn. Schubert is also cited as an inspiration for the ever-rising string figures climaxing in bursts of repeated notes used more and more as the movement progresses. A cadenza for the soloist comes at the end of the first movement, the length of which – nearly twenty minutes – imitates the Beethoven or Brahms violin concertos rather than those of Mozart.

The second movement is a peaceful meditation unfolding at a steady walking pace. Fanfare-like outbursts intrude from time to time before subsiding. Even the liner notes cannot help calling attention to a certain amount of monotony in the music, pleasant though it is. Enescu performed the first movement with the Paris Conservatory student orchestra in 1896 but never completed a final movement, composed another concerto for his instrument – despite being a virtuoso violinist – or attempted to have this unfinished work performed again in his lifetime.

Violinist Carolin Widmann is more than capable of handling the concerto’s difficulties and the NDR Radiophilharmonie under Peter Ruzicka make an admirable foil for her talents. If there is a certain foursquare heaviness about the rhythms at times, it seems largely to be the fault of the composer rather than the performers.

The Phantasy for Piano and Orchestra came two years after the abortive Violin Concerto. Despite now studying at the Paris Conservatoire – apparently at the instigation of Fuchs in order to counterbalance his German influences – Enescu wrote it for a former Vienna classmate. Here his Brahmsian tendencies are to the fore. Counterpoint abounds, its interweaving lines creating thicker musical textures than in the concerto. The liner notes observe that the “aura” of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto is present in the second theme of the Phantasy and that frequent allusions to melodic and harmonic fingerprints of Brahms occur. Besides thicker textures, Enescu fills out the scoring, with some wonderful moments where the low brass project through the entire ensemble. The piano part alternates Lisztian bravura with passages of quite a hushed delicacy. There is much thematic development – a definite Brahms influence – but no cadenza for the soloist.

The Phantasy is no makeweight at twenty minutes but its more compact design provides balance and it feels more satisfying than the concerto. Pianist Luiza Borac seems comfortable with the work and presents it eloquently. The sound is good across the album.

CPO has previously recorded Enuescu’s unfinished fourth and fifth symphonies in completions by Romanian composer and musicologist Pascal Bentoiu. (Fourth Symphony review review; Fifth Symphony review review) This disc now moves their traversal of Enescu’s incomplete or unknown repertoire in the opposite chronological direction. Enescu left a surprising amount of music unfinished at his death – will there be more installments in this series of recordings? There are also four early “study symphonies” to consider, substantial works in their own right. Only the first and last of these have ever been recorded, to the best of my knowledge, as part of a 7-disc Enescu set issued by Electrecord and licensed to Olympia on six discs with Horia Andreescu and the Romanian National Radio Orchestra. Both versions are long out of print. The first three volumes of the Olympia set are currently available as downloads from Presto Music. Volume 1 has Study Symphony No 4. Each volume in the Electrecord set is available for mp3 download or as streaming audio from Amazon Music Unlimited. The Electrecord Volume 7 has Study Symphony No 1.

Who will want this disc? Enescu connoisseurs or those curious to explore a budding composer’s development. The Phantasy is worth hearing for its own sake; the Violin Concerto is for the completist.

Christopher Little

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