Digging Into Enescu’s Piano Works

Enescu piano works

ENESCU: Nocturne in Db. Pièces Impromptues. Piano Sonata No. 1. Piano Suite, “Des cloches sonores.” Prélude et Fugue. Piano Sonata No. 3. Pièce sur la nome de Fauré. Scherzo. Ballade für klavier. Prélude et Scherzo. Barcarolle. La Fileuse. Regrets. Suite dans la style ancien. Impromptu in Ab. Impromptu in C. Modérément / Josu de Solaun, pno / Grand Piano GP751X

This is a boxed set reissue of de Solaun’s three separate CDs of Enescu’s music previously issued as Grand Piano GP705, 706 and 707 a couple of years ago, but since I did not review them at this time I took the plunge to do so here.

Quite aside from the fact that I still think Enescu a vastly underrated composer (for me. he’s kind of like a Rumanian Bartók), I approached this collection with open ears. I know that even great composers sometimes began in conventional musical expression, but even in the early Nocturne (from 1907) he is already trying to say something different in music from his predecessors. It is a very rich piece, moody and smoldering, with fascinating twists and turns, almost more like a fantasy than a nocturne, and de Solaun plays it with a nice, rich, deep-in-the-keys touch that literally gets to the bottom of the music both technically and emotionally. The Pièces Impromptues are in the same vein, with the “Burleske” being a particularly rambunctious piece in a very different mood, with rising chromatics. The “Chorale” in this series bears a strong resemblance to Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie. One of the few pieces I did not much care for, however, was the “Carillon Nocturne,” which didn’t go anywhere.

Interestingly, the first piano sonata, written in 1924, still explores this quasi-impressionist vein, which by its character makes the music sound more like an open-ended fantasy. Interestingly, the even earlier piano suite, “Des cloches sonores,” sounds more rhythmically regular and thus more “bound” in form. Yet, despite its tighter form, it struck me as more formulaic and “ordinary,” though this perception changes with the more startling later movements in the suite, such as the “Pavane” and “Bourée.”

And yet, despite de Solaun’s fabulous playing and the interesting moments in these works, I couldn’t help feel in the back of my mind that Enescu used these piano pieces as a sort of sketchbook for the larger, more complex pieces he wrote. They are pretty good, and a few of them (like the Nocturne) are quite fabulous, but for the most part this music treads water. This doesn’t make it worthless—Enescu was, after all, a genius—but sketchbook music is sketchbook music. Small wonder that so many of the pieces herein had not been recorded previously. De Solaun makes a strong case for them, but hearing them back-to-back-to-back-to-back like this, one notes the similarities and weak spots far easier than of one listened to them one at a time with periods of silence in between. The fugue in his 1903 Prélude et Fugue of 1903 is one of his most fascinating works in addition to being well-constructed technically.

The Scherzo from 1894, written when Enescu was only 13 years old, is a surprisingly fine piece, the fast outer passages influenced to some extent by Rossini. The equally early Ballade für piano is a pleasant piece, but not quite as creative. The Prelude and Scherzo, from two years later, shows a marked growth in his compositional ideas, the latter showing the surprising influence of Alkan, a composer virtually unknown at this time. And yet, La Fileuse is a somewhat weak and derivative-sounding (Chopinesque) ballad, and the “Adagio” from the Suite No. 1 is repetitive and uninteresting, though the “Finale – Presto” from the same suite is tremendously exciting (and also shows a touch of Alkan). And yet, surprisingly, it is this last CD of early works that is primarily the most interesting of the three.

In toto, a fascinating look inside the mind of a great composer, showing his various methods and styles of composition and how they evolved over the decades. The sound quality is also terrific; de Solaun sounds as if he’s playing in your living room.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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