The Fourth Symphony of George Enescu – Historical Footnote or Major Rediscovery? [UK premiere, April 29]

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

George Enescu (1881-1955)

Although his chamber and piano output is increasingly recognised in the context of twentieth-century music, the orchestral works of George Enescu (1881-1955) have yet to enjoy wider exposure outside of his native Romania; in particular, his stature as a symphonist has become evident only during the past quarter-century, but this is less to do with a lack of performances than for the fact that the full extent of his contribution to this genre was not clear owing to the composer’s propensity in later years to leave major works in varying states of incompletion.

Symphonic writing nonetheless occupied Enescu for almost six decades, from the blithe yet precocious amalgam of Brahms and Dvořák of his Symphony in D-minor from 1895 (given a public airing by the composer in 1934) to the acute pathos of his Chamber Symphony from 1954. A potent amalgam of Franck’s thematic ingenuity and Saint-Saëns’s formal rigour, his Symphony in E-flat of 1898 is an astounding achievement for one still only sixteen (comparable in all respects to those First Symphonies of Glazunov and Shostakovich), but despite the acclaim of his teachers at the Paris Conservatoire it went unheard until 1970. Things might have been otherwise had it been afforded canonic status rather than merely becoming his Fourth ‘School’ Symphony, but Enescu kept the former distinction for another work in E-flat; his First Symphony of 1905 was cordially received at its Paris premiere and had frequent performances over the next decade. Not so his Second Symphony in A, whose textural complexity baffled listeners at its Bucharest premiere in 1915 and was not played again for forty-six years. His Third Symphony in C, a personal take on late-Romantic notions of destruction and transcendence, was acclaimed at Bucharest in 1919 and subsequently in Paris, but its lavish forces have made revivals rare: it reached the UK as late as 1999 with the first London hearing in 2015.

There matters seemed to rest regarding Enescu the symphonist, though reference books have often made mention of Fourth and Fifth Symphonies being left incomplete. Indeed, these works remained unknown outside of specialist circles until their completion by Pascal Bentoiu (1927-2015), a disciple (but never pupil) of Enescu and whose own Eight Symphonies constitute the most vital continuation of that genre in Romania during the post-war era. Having realised the Fifth Symphony in 1995, Bentoiu tackled its predecessor the following year, receiving its premiere in Bucharest, conducted by Cristian Mandeal, in October 1997. Several performances ensued, along with a recording (on CPO) from Peter Ruzicka. April 29 sees its UK premiere by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper.

Sketched in 1928, the Fourth Symphony in E-minor was its composer’s main preoccupation during 1933 and 1934, yet he left the work in abeyance around 1939 with only the first movement and the opening third of its successor orchestrated. Crucially, however, the remainder of the score had been fully drafted – not least when compared with, say, Mahler’s Tenth or Elgar’s Third – and this duly enabled Bentoiu to undertake its completion without fear of imposing his own creative persona on music that is wholly characteristic of its composer.

Playing without pause for just over half an hour, the Fourth Symphony features some of the most emotionally charged music Enescu ever wrote – perhaps reflecting, however obliquely, the difficult circumstances under which it was written (his companion, Maruca Cantacuzino, suffered a severe breakdown in this period, then Enescu’s own health was also under strain). In the opening movement, Allegro appassionato, such sustained intensity is partly achieved by opening-out the formal premises of its sonata-form design so that the main themes – the dramatic and powerfully scored first subject, then pensive second subject with its recourse to those heterophonic textures that are a hallmark of later Enescu – both remain in constant evolution over its turbulent course, before reaching a culmination as fatalistic as it is brutal.

Following this, tension subsides into the resigned coda, then a side drum launches the central movement – Un poco andante, marziale. This unfolds as an understated yet always purposeful intermezzo, a familiar trait of Romantic symphonism but seldom, if ever, utilised with such originality, in which the percussion has a continuous role which underpins some of Enescu’s most imaginative orchestral writing: what might not so fancifully be described as a ‘haunted landscape’ – across which echoes of, and allusions to, previous themes emerge then disperse with an elusiveness that borders on the intangible. Far from becoming an emotional ‘shock absorber’ to what has gone before it, this is music intent on groping its way forward towards an uncertain, because indefinable, outcome – its expression exuding an exquisite ambiguity.

This shadowy processional now recedes as the final movement, Allegro vivace – non troppo, hovers into view. Enescu initially planned a large-sale fugal Finale, but what resulted is a free rondo further developing the themes previously encountered and in what effectively becomes a stretto of mounting activity. Of especial note is its fourth-based harmony that, evident in earlier movements, here comes to the fore with decisive consequences for the tonal outcome of this work overall. The music reaches a tumultuous coda that heads towards its affirmative close, yet any overt triumph is pointedly offset by the implacable chord of E which resonates into silence. If, as Bentoiu suggests, Enescu was intent on revisiting his First Symphony, then such youthful exuberance is here being recast in the stark and often-bitter light of experience.

Had it been completed at the time, Enescu’s Fourth Symphony could quite easily have taken its place in the company of such combative Symphonies of the 1930s as Vaughan Williams’s Fourth, Walton’s First and Shostakovich’s Fifth. Just why the composer left it in an advanced state of incompleteness might also be explained by his concern that music so unequivocal in its expression was unlikely to find a great deal of favour with audiences having accorded his earlier two Symphonies little or limited acclaim, a situation likely to have been exacerbated as musicians grappled with the new work’s underlying complexity. As in his very different and highly introspective Fifth Symphony a decade on, Enescu may increasingly have felt that an un-commissioned work he had already realised in his head was as far as it needed to be taken.

From the vantage of Bentoiu’s completion in the mid-1990s, the Symphony per se no longer enjoyed the seminal place in contemporary musical culture it once had. That said, and remembering Yehudi Menuhin’s oft-stated conviction that Enescu the composer would only come into his own during the twenty-first century, this music manifestly provides still-to-be-explored potential for large-scale orchestral writing; whether in terms of its formal ingenuity, tonal subtlety or expressive ambiguity. Something that Bentoiu himself saw as a justification for having realised the Fourth Symphony and which is worth bearing in mind by those many composers who might question the continued validity of this genre, not least given the paucity of new symphonic works being commissioned as orchestras fall back on standard repertoire.

Such issues aside, one can only take pleasure from the fact that, eight decades after Enescu had broken off work on this music and two decades after Bentoiu saw it to fruition, the Fourth Symphony is being heard in the UK – so giving listeners the chance to decide whether it is no more than a mere historical footnote or a notable restoration to the symphonic writing of its era.

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