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ClassicsOnline Home » ENESCU: Piano Quintet / Piano Quartet No. 2
By Calum MacDonald
BBC Music Magazine
American Record Guide
George Enescu (1881-1955)
Piano Quintet Piano Quartet No. 2
The Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu may now be seen as the most important figure in the musical history of his country. He was born in Moldavia in 1881 and had violin lessons there with a pupil of Vieuxtemps, before moving, at the age of seven, to the Conservatory in Vienna, where he studied with Josef Hellmesberger. In 1893 he went to Paris for further study of the violin with Marsick and of composition with Massenet and Fauré, and in 1897 a concert of his work was given there. By 1899, when he won the first violin prize at the Conservatoire, he was already known as a composer, his Poème romaine having proved particularly successful. His subsequent career brought him similar distinction both as a performer and as a conductor.
Although Enescus career was centred on Paris, with the formation in 1904 of the Enescu Quartet, and increasing commitments both as an unwilling virtuoso and later as a teacher, he retained his connections with Romania and did much to encourage music there, through the Bucharest Conservatory and through the Conservatory at Iai, where he established the George Enescu Symphony Orchestra in 1917. His influence on younger Romanian composers was to remain considerable.
Enescu was a remarkably versatile musician. He was a competent pianist, accompanying Jacques Thibaud in the first performance of his own second Violin Sonata, and able to play all of Wagner at the keyboard from memory. In his phenomenal memory he held the complete works of Bach, and Menuhin describes how he was able to play Ravels new Violin Sonata from memory after two brief readings with the composer. His natural ability as a small child had led him to become a virtuoso violinist, but his interest was always rather in composition than performance, the second providing the means for the first. His life was divided between Paris and Romania, his character and music presenting a similar contrast between cosmopolitan urbanity and the more passionate elements that were part of his Moldavian inheritance.
Lauded as a violinist during his lifetime, George Enescu was a true all-round musician, as his pupil and devotee Yehudi Menuhin attested on numerous occasions, whose strongest wish was to enjoy comparable recognition as a composer. Despite early success, notably the two Romanian Rhapsodies of 1901, his work found real appreciation only among a number of fellow musicians and admirers. Prolific in his youth, the demands of performance and administration, not to mention upheavals in his personal life and those in his beloved Romania, slowed his creativity so that he was able to complete little more than a dozen major compositions after World War One. Yet the intrinsic quality of these works, bringing together an innate understanding of the Classical masters with the achievements of the French and German Romanticists, and transcending notions of the radical and conservative in music, has led to a gradual resurgence of interest over the past two decades.
Enescus mature work is of a density of thought and subtlety of expression to demand repeated listening. His themes, while rarely drawing attention to themselves, are capable of far-reaching transformation both across and between movements. Tonally elusive, the music is rarely without a sense of key to ground and direct the underlying argument. A notable feature of his major works is the final-movement coda, an intense and often lengthy process, which combines the salient themes of a work and completes the tonal process in an often rhetorical, though never bombastic fashion. Such qualities are very much in evidence in the two works featured on the present disc.
In common with several of Enescus later works, the Piano Quintet, dedicated to the memory of Elena Bibescu, the Romanian princess and pianist who had given much support to the composer during his years in Paris at the turn of the century, had a protracted genesis. Numerous drafts anticipate its completion around September 1940, though only the first movement is dated and the work was not performed in the composers lifetime. In size and scope, it recalls the First String Quartet (1920) in its expansiveness and overall emotional sweep. The powerfully restrained Con moto molto moderato first movement sustains concentration over a lengthy time-span through an involved developing of its two main themes, replete with subtle contrasts in mood and pacing.
The succeeding Vivace ma non troppo is more animated in every respect, alternating a robust, dance-like main theme with episodes of a more inward nature. Reminiscences of the first movement gradually emerge, however: its passionate yearning finally combining with the second movements energy as a grand apotheosis is reached, the work then drawing to a decisive, even defiant conclusion. Exemplifying a potent expressive focus and textural finesse, the Piano Quintet had to wait until 1964 for its première, which took place in Bucharest.
Composed between July 1943 and May 1944, the Second Piano Quartet is among the most searching of Enescus mature pieces. Written in memory of his teacher Gabriel Fauré, and marking the twentieth anniversary of his death, the music is akin to the older composers last chamber works in its refinement of mood, though not its intricate counterpoint. Each of the three movements adapts respectively sonata, ternary and rondo forms in unexpected ways, so that the transformation of themes is pursued continuously over the works half-hour span. The Allegro moderato has a brooding unease, the ongoing sense of key not so much obscured as elusive. The refined sensuousness of the outer sections of the Andante pensieroso ed espressivo, the works most evidently French music in stylistic imprint, is gently brought into focus by a more animated central section.
Together, these two movements form a lyrical, often meditative continuity, disrupted by the pervasive agitation of the closing Con moto moderato, its peremptory main theme generating a momentum which makes possible the powerfully affirmative coda. Stylistically, the work is typical late Enescu: witness the many instances where the composer draws the strings into a translucent continuum of sound, their combined timbre complemented, rather than opposed, by piano writing in which Romanian folk inflections are distilled to a rarefied degree. Thanks to the support of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a tireless promoter of chamber music in the first half of the twentieth century, the Second Piano Quartet received its première in Washington D. C. on 31st October, 1947.
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ENESCU: Piano Quintet / Piano Quartet No. 2