Suite No.1 in G minor, Op.3 (Dans le style ancien)
Suite No.2 in D, Op.10
Suite No.3, Op.18 (Pièces impromptues)
Prelude and Fugue in C
Nocturne in D flat
Pièce sur le nom de Fauré
Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.24/1
Piano Sonata No.3 in D, Op.24/3
Luiza Borac (piano)
Suites 1-3 recorded 23-30 March 2003 in the Stadttheater, Lindau (Bodensee), Germany; all other pieces recorded on 4th, 5th & 7th July 2005 at St Dunstans Church, Mayfield, England
Suites 1-3 are available separately; the remainder of the works are on a 2-CD set
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: April 2006
CD No: AVIE RECORDS AV0012 (Suites 1-3)
AVIE RECORDS AV2081
Duration: 79 minutes (Suites)
94 minutes [2-CD set]
George Enescu (1881-1955) was one of the twentieth-century’s most prodigiously gifted musicians. A national hero in his native Romania, he was a distinguished violinist, conductor and teacher, and could have made a highly successful career as just one of those. But it was composition that interested him most.
These three discs (the Suites available separately) bring together the bulk of his piano music. According to the work-list in Grove, all that’s missing here is an early Prelude, an Impromptu and a set of Variations for two pianos (though Grove doesn’t list the Nocturne or the Pièce sur le nom de Fauré). In case you’re wondering what’s happened to Piano Sonata No.2, Enescu composed it in his head, but never managed to write it down.
The three suites span the years 1897-1916. No.1 (‘In the old style’) recreates a baroque keyboard suite, with a rhetorical ‘Prelude’, an intricate ‘Fugue’ that Bach wouldn’t have been ashamed of, an Adagio in which Bach and Brahms join hands, and a brilliant, virtuoso toccata-like ‘Finale’. Enescu was 15 at the time!
Suite No.2 (1903) is also based on baroque models, but by now Enescu’s language has begun to reflect the harmonic subtlety of his teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, Gabriel Fauré. So the ‘Sarabande’ second movement is more like a Fauré nocturne than anything in Bach. The following ‘Pavane’ wouldn’t sound out of place amid early Debussy, while the final ‘Bourrée’ even briefly presages Stravinsky’s Petrushka, written eight years later.
The seven-movement Third Suite is subtitled ‘Impromptu Pieces’, and here the baroque era has been left far behind as Enescu moves into a more personal world, subtly coloured by traditional Romanian music. This strongly contrasted set of character pieces ranges from the profound introspection of ‘Mazurk mélancolique’ to the frisky acrobatics of ‘Burlesque’. ‘Choral’ has a rare eloquence, while the final ‘Carillon nocturne’ summons up a range of bell sonorities of a completely original kind.
The second release, a pair of discs, rounds up the smaller pieces (with the exceptions noted above) together with the two surviving sonatas. “Smaller” is actually a misleading description of the Nocturne, a piece on an expansive, 20-minute scale that was only discovered after Enescu’s death. Its big-boned structure contains a wide expressive range, from the dark and powerfully sonorous to the light and delicate.
It is preceded by the C major Prelude and Fugue, apparently first conceived as the opening movement of the Second Suite but eventually taking on a life of its own. Both parts of the work have a luminous tranquillity that is enormously appealing.
The first disc ends with a striking juxtaposition of early and mature Enescu. The Brahms-like Scherzo of 1896 followed by the subtly elusive Pièce sur le nom de Fauré from 1922, his contribution to a special edition of the Paris-based “Revue Musicale” honouring Enescu’s former teacher, and which also included pieces by Ravel, Koechlin and Schmitt, among others.
The second disc of the pair contains the sonatas. These are both later works, No.1 dating from 1924, when Enescu had begun work on his opera “Oedipe”, and No.3 begun in 1933, after the opera was finished, and completed two years later.
They are both in three movements, No.1 consisting of two moderately paced outer movements and a central scherzo, the other one reversing that pattern, with two quick movements enclosing a song-like Andantino. The first movement of No.1 is an exploratory, almost improvisatory, piece on a large scale. The following Presto has an engagingly dry, quirky sense of humour (imagine Mussorgsky’s ‘Unhatched Chicks’ joining forces with Debussy’s Minstrels). The tolling repeated notes that underpin the finale call to mind ‘Le gibet’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, but without the sinister overtones – Enescu later said that he was aiming to evoke Romania’s wide-open spaces at night.
Sonata No.3 is full of resonances of Romanian traditional music, thoroughly assimilated into Enescu’s personal language, from the first movement’s engagingly buoyant dance rhythms to the Andantino’s haunting, song-like melodic lines, while the finale derives its piquant character from a mixture of toccata-like writing and more dance rhythms, combined with moments of an engaging rhythmic waywardness.
Like the music itself, Romanian pianist Luiza Borac is a real discovery. She has a wonderfully fluent technique that wears its virtuosity lightly, projecting the music with a winning mixture of vitality and sensitivity, power and delicacy, rhythmic security and limpid clear tone. She plays with great strength in such passages as the opening of the First Suite’s ‘Prelude’, articulates the textures of the ‘Fugue’ with remarkable clarity and negotiates the ‘Finale’ with great nimbleness. The stormier passages of the Nocturne, too, show her able to combine eloquent expressiveness with great physical power. Her phrasing has a subtle flexibility that at the same time avoids any hint of self-indulgence, good examples being the ‘Pavane’ from Suite No.2, the Prelude and Fugue, and, in particular, her probing account of the Andantino from Sonata No.3. She plays with great rhythmic control in the early Scherzo and the First Sonata’s central movement, while her grasp of atmosphere in the latter’s finale is compelling. Her contributions to the booklets confirm the lively intelligence that underlies her playing, and she has been recorded in beautifully clear, natural sound.
This is all hugely impressive – on the part of both the composer and the pianist. Enescu has long been a sadly neglected figure, beyond his First Romanian Rhapsody. That seems to be changing at last, and these discs of the piano music can only give the process a welcome extra push.