Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3. Violin Sonata in a,
Axel Strauss (vn); Ilya Poletaev (pn)
NAXOS 8.572691 (67:21)
George(s) Enescu occupies a niche all his own in the pantheon of 20th-century composers. Described by his friend and colleague Pablo Casals as “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart,” his
, though impressive, doesn’t always reach those
heights. Moreover his style, though based on Rumanian folk music and its piquant harmonies, tended to be fairly Romantic in style, with bold melodies and sweeping lines that sounded, to me at least, much more like a Rumanian Brahms or Franck than like Mozart. This isn’t to say that his music was not good, or not original, merely that sometimes the over-praise of well-meaning friends tends to obscure or skewer an artist’s true worth.
If Enescu’s compositional style resembles Brahms, he was often a much more impassioned composer, his music vacillating curiously between tried-and-true musical formulas and sweeping passages that showed a strong imagination and great depth of feeling. This is particularly evident in the early (1899) Violin Sonata No. 2. Enescu himself said that it was the composition in which he found his own voice. This was most probably due to the very earthy Rumanian harmonies. Enescu thus preceded Bartók, whose field trips to record traditional Hungarian folk music were still a few years off, in transcribing elements of Eastern European ethnic music into classical compositions. (I don’t really consider the small influx of Czech music in the compositions of Smetana and Dvo?ák to be all that significant, at least not in comparison to Enescu or Bartók.)
It’s a good piece, however strongly romantic its melodic language may be, and it is very clear in listening to it that Enescu really did do as fine a job as he could at this stage in his career (he was only 18 years old). Especially in the last movement, the stomping folk rhythms really do take over the feel of the music and propel his melodies and variants in a wonderfully organic way—this is certainly the high point of this Sonata, including the brilliant idea to momentarily slow down the tempo and quote the second movement, then to transform the opening of the work into an almost frenzied release of joy. While listening, I was continually astonished by the ability of both violinist Strauss and pianist Poletaev to enter fully into the spirit of this music, becoming carried away by its emotions and eventual exuberance. Bravo!
The single movement in A Minor, discovered after the composer’s death and labeled as the “Torso” Sonata, was composed in 1911, yet it has much in common with the 1899 Sonata in many ways. Form is not one of them, however, as this single movement has several contrasting tempos and moods played continuously. The liner notes, written by Poletaev, suggest that it has much in common with the composer’s symphonic works. I would, however, point out that this “turbulent, dense work” is practically a one-movement sonata in itself. Perhaps Enescu, wondering if he could add anything more to this “torso,” kept putting it off until it was too late, but it certainly stands on its own as a great piece of music.
almost comes as a nice, pleasant, relaxed interlude to the intensity of the sonatas. The Sonata in A Minor, composed in 1926, is fully mature Enescu; some of the same Romantic flavor of the 1899 Sonata is present here, as are the unbroken tempo changes of the 1911 “Torso,” but there is even more progress in his construction of themes, manipulation of them, and harmonic daring. In short, this is almost—but not quite—a different composer, one so well steeped in the folk idiom by this time—not only of his own country, but of others as well—that almost nothing sounds contrived or formulaic; the music is at an almost consistently high level of invention and originality. Oh, yes, there are those moments when the violin reaches into its upper range where one senses that kinship with the 1899 work, but everything is more assured, more mature. The liner notes also indicate that although no actual folk tunes are quoted, the composer seems to have assimilated the feeling of Northern Moldavian tunes and similarities to Hassidic synagogue singing of the region, while Alfred Cortot claimed that the second movement’s eerie melodic statements evoked “the mysterious feeling of summer nights in Romania,” the strange melody played softly on the edge of the strings to create an unusual mood. This is Enescu’s most famous Violin Sonata, played and recorded the most often, yet Strauss and Poletaev manage to make it sound freshly-minted, immersing themselves in its many technical and emotional challenges and emerging victorious.
There appear to be three other recordings of these pieces available: violinist Mariana Sirbu and pianist Mihail Sarbu on Dynamic (the three numbered sonatas, not including the “Torso”); violinist Albrecht Laurent Breuninger and pianist Thomas Duis on Telos (all of Enescu’s violin-piano music on a 2-CD set); and violinist Remus Azoitei with pianist Eduard Stan on Hänssler (also all of Enescu’s violin-piano music, but this time split into two separate CDs). Without having heard them, however, I can still give high marks to this Naxos disc, if for no other reason than the high voltage performances of Strauss and Poletaev. This is good stuff for Enescu lovers!
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Impromptu Concertant by George Enescu
Axel Strauss (Violin),
Ilya Poletaev (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
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