ENESCU: Symphonies Nos. 1-3*. Suite No. 3, “Villageoise.” Romanian Rhapsodies Nos. 1 & 2 / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; *Leeds Festival Chorus; Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor / Chandos CHAN 10984
In my opinion, George(s) Enescu (his first name was spelled both ways, depending on whether or not he was staying in France for an extended period of time) was the greatest of all violinist-composers. The problem, if problem there is, is that Enescu had so much talent that people didn’t automatically think of him as a violinist first and foremost, as they did with Wieniawski, Sarasate, Kreisler or Paganini; but then again, the same was true of Antonio Vivaldi, who I put second in the all-time list of violinist-composers. Yet the violin was Enescu’s primary instrument, which is the reason he taught Arthur Grumiaux and helped “finish” Yehudi Menuhin’s technique for him, although he was also a first-rate pianist, a cellist, and an excellent conductor in addition to being a composer.
These 1996-98 recordings of his orchestral music, including all three of his numbered symphonies (he wrote three un-numbered ones and a Chamber Symphony) and the ever-popular Romanian Rhapsodies, are given a bit of a Romantic feel by the wonderful Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Listening carefully to the recordings, the ear catches some noticeable digital splices and I’m sure there are others in there not so noticeable, but I forgive the BBC Philharmonic because Enescu’s music, great as it is, is still not standard repertoire except for the Rhapsodies. People like their Tunes, and Enescu’s symphonies, late Romantic but not pandering to plebeian tastes, are far more dramatic and technically complex to be sopped up by those who just love repeated hearings of the Beethoven Seventh or Brahms First.
Just listen, for instance, to the first movement of the first symphony. Yes, it’s a bit heavy-handed here and there, trying to make a big impression, but there’s so much going on here in terms of shifting meters, wholly unexpected harmonic changes, counterpoint and even counter-melodies that it just overwhelms you. And then there is the second movement, sensuous but not treacly or sentimental, with its wonderfully broad melodies. By contrast, the opening movement of the “Villageoise” Suite No. 3 is much simpler in construction, exuding a “folksy” Rumanian feeling. Yet there is the unexpectedly eccentric second movement, with its fluctuation meter and unusual use of the xylophone. And in that long third movement, bearing the long descriptive title “The old childhood house in the sunset – Shepherd – Migrating birds and crows – The vesper bell,” Enescu works around a long oboe or English horn melody (there’s so much reverb around the instrument I couldn’t hear it clearly) with strange atonal and bitonal wind chords, creating a bizarre tapestry of sound.
Only in the Romanian Rhapsodies did I feel that Rozhdestvensky gave the music a softer, more “romantic” profile in the sense of more tender contours, yet even so he maintained the basic core strength of the music when it was called for. The Second Symphony, though composed not too long after the first, is an entirely different animal, being more like a tone poem in its shape and style; obviously, the composer was thinking of a symphony in altogether different terms. Moreover, the extremely long first movement (over 19 minutes) almost seems like a separate tone-poem, but I didn’t care at all for the long second movement, a bit like the slow movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique in that it meanders too much and says too little. Then, suddenly, the last two movements sound like Mahler, but very confused, chaotic Mahler. This is not one of Enescu’s better works.
The Third Symphony, written in 1916-17, begins with a slow but sad-sounding movement. Both the rhythm and the structure are tighter here, and there is less rambling and ruminating. Rozhdestvensky holds the structure together beautifully, caressing the line and nudging the tempo forward. Parts of this movement also sound Mahlerian, but by this point Enescu had a better grasp of what he (and Mahler) was trying to do, and thus manages to balance it out with some of his own ideas. The musical flow is more consistent here and less “I-don’t-know-where-I’m-going.” Eventually the temp picks up but the mood remains dark; Enescu, who actually fought in World War I on the side of the Allies, was evidently mourning his lost friend and comrades. The liner notes indicate that he makes frequent use in this movement of the Mixolydian mode, which gives the score a restless feeling.
The second movement, marked simply “Vivace ma non troppo,” is not quite Mahlerian in scope, despite a Mahler paraphrase at the two-minute mark; rather, it sounds almost like early Stravinsky in a light, but not a jocular, vein, with swirling winds and strings playing off of a viola-cello melodic line. Eventually, however, the music becomes extraordinarily muscular, almost overpowering, with ferocious brass and percussion passages, before lightening up again and moving back into light string and wind interplay. The third movement, by contrast, is all beauty and harmonic resolution, featuring a wordless chorus à la Holst’s “Neptune, the Mystic.” The biggest problem here, however, as in the last movement of the Second Symphony, is that it goes on for too long.
The first Roumanian Rhapsody was even more popular than the second—even Toscanini played it, and Rozhdestvensky has a ball with it here. Enescu spoke with disdain of the rhapsodies, however, somewhat angry that they became concert-hall staples while his better works languished, but he was so busy with his playing, teaching and conducting that he didn’t have much time left over for composing. As this set proves, he was an erratic composer but when inspired quite original and effective, surely more interesting to listen to than anything Bruckner wrote.
By and large, then, an interesting but uneven set. Personally, I recommend CDs 1 & 3 but not CD 2, so if you can find them separately that is what you should go for.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley