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CLASSICAL  September 2008

CLASSICAL September 2008

Subject:

Enescu / Bacewicz

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 23 Sep 2008 17:03:04 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (144 lines)

George Enescu
Grazyna Bacewicz

*  Enescu: Violin Sonata No. 2, op. 6 in f
*  Bacewicz
    -  Sonata da camera
    -  Violin Sonata No. 3
    -  Partita

Lydia Mordkovitch (violin),
Ian Fountain (piano)
Chandos CHAN10476  Total time: 60:49.

Summary for the Busy Executive: Two from the East.

George Enescu (also known as Georges Enesco) stands as one of the two
finest Rumanian composers (the other, Marcel Mihalovici).  Enescu entered
the Paris Conservatoire in piano, violin, and composition, becoming one
of the great violinists of his time.  He studied composition with Massenet,
and Faure, among others, as well as counterpoint with the great pedagogue
of his time, Andre Gedalge.  His student friends included Ravel, Florent
Schmitt, Charles Koechlin, Alfredo Casella, Alfred Cortot, and Jacques
Thibaud.

Although he considered himself primarily a composer, Enescu completed
only somewhere around thirty-three opus numbers.  Touring as a violinist
cut considerably into his composing time.  Furthermore, cursed with
perfectionism, he fussed with his scores before and after performance
and wouldn't release things a less tender conscience probably would have.
On his death in 1955, a huge sheaf of manuscripts, in various states of
completion, turned up.  Some of these, including two symphonies, have
been made performance-ready by other hands.  Others reside in the Enescu
Museum in Bucharest.

Enescu is probably best-known for his work based on Rumanian folk music,
notably the two Rumanian Rhapsodies, but his idiom ranged far more widely
to include post-Wagnerian chromaticism, early neoclassicism, and an
individual idiom in which folk sources are absorbed and abstracted, along
the lines of Bartok in Hungary and Vaughan Williams (eg, his fourth
symphony) in England.

An early work, the second violin sonata (1899) comes across as an odd
mixture of Brahms, Cesar Franck, and Faure.  Indeed, Enescu at one point
practically quotes the opening theme of the Franck violin sonata.  It's
as if the young composer hasn't quite turned his schooling into his own
voice.  That said, the sonata shows a firm grip on form and an adult
sensibility in the embrace of grand passion.  The first movement weaves
a complex narrative -- a sonata with three subjects, skillfully interwoven.
There's also an arresting gesture of chords descending by whole tones
(the end of Ravel's piano concerto, first movement, echoes this), used
twice in the movement to dissipate climactic intensity.  The second
movement begins with what sounds like an Eastern-European folk melody,
but Enescu instead takes the melody for a distinctly non-folky, elaborate,
Franckian walk, every so often doubling back to the beginning.  The
ending pares everything down practically to solo violin and soft octaves
and open fifths in the piano, smoothly proceeding without pause to the
vif finale.  The main theme is fun, in a French way, off-kilter rhythmically
and, it turns out, a variant of a theme from the first movement.  Indeed,
the finale recalls themes from the previous two, although it subjects
them all to rhythmic tweaking.  It's filled with warm wit and wants
nothing more than to amuse you.  This entire score strikes me as one of
the finest of the Late Romantic French school.

Grazyna Bacewicz also studied violin, piano, and composition.  She
was a violinist good enough to come in runner-up to Ginette Niveu in
an international competition.  In composition, she took advanced study
with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.  I consider her one of the great composers
of the twentieth century, certainly one of the big three of Polish Modern
(Szymanowski and Lutoslawski, the others), but few in the West know her
music, despite several of her scores winning prestigious international
prizes.  Her music falls into three large styles: a Stravinskian
neoclassicism; a strong muscularity influenced by Bartok, especially
in the first few years after World War II; and from the Fifties on, a
harsher, more experimental style which sacrifices none of her previous
power or ability to communicate.

The five-movement Sonata da camera from 1945 comes across as a bit weird.
Leroy-Anderson light, it lies outside her typical works of the period
and reminds me a bit of Elgar's examples of neoclassicism (eg, "Gavotte:
AD 1700 and 1900") or of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony.  A large portion
of it sounds as if written by a dutiful student of eighteenth-century
style.  Then, as smoothly as Alice creeping through the looking-glass,
you suddenly find yourself in surreal, modern territory.  This happens
in three of the movements.  The opening "Largo" about halfway through
moves instantly and almost unnoticeably from Handel to Dali.  The trio
of the third-movement "Minuet" suddenly breaks free of its rhythmic
tether, lurching in odd-bar phrases.  The "Allegro" second movement is
practically pure Stravinsky, as is the final "Gigue." Only the fourth-movement
"Andante" consistently reveals the composer's artistic personality and
gives the work an unexpected depth.

The 1948 third violin sonata shows Bacewicz coming to grips with the
music of Bartok.  Paradoxically, this influence allowed Bacewicz to find
her own convincing voice.  Adrian Thomas, who wrote not only the liner
notes but the Grove entry on Bacewicz as well, claims a Szymanowski
influence in the lyrical sections, which I don't hear at all.  Bartok's
music hit serious young composers all over Eastern Europe hard after the
war, even someone as independent as Lutoslawski.  How this music survived,
let alone got played, in the atmosphere of Socialist Realism, I can't
tell you, but the Poles somehow managed.  Bacewicz's sonata avoids broad
strokes and easy emotions.  She has sublimated her Boulanger neoclassicism
into textural clarity, though she has left behind the sunniness of it.
To me, her sonata speaks mainly of uncertainty, especially in the slow
movement -- not dark, so much as unsettled.  The third-movement scherzo,
a blood-and-guts affair, drives and hits.  Bacewicz was admired for her
fast music, and these two middle movements show her at her most
characteristic.  But she saves the best for last, coming up with a
movement tragic and questing, by turns, with a defiant end.  By me, a
great sonata.

The Partita (1955) returns to neoclassical tropes, but Bacewicz
abstracts them to fit her increased and more complicated mode of expression.
She models the Partita on the old sonata di chiesa, with its slow-fast,
slow-fast succession of movements.  At this point, she has stripped her
idiom of ornament and Bartokian richness, as if she wants to write as
few notes as possible.  The music is austere, almost to Shostakovich
levels of asperity.  Nevertheless, the music sings profoundly.  The third
movement dares the most, by a long shot.  Marked "Andantino melancolico,"
it really proceeds at an adagio pace; its thirty-five bars run more than
three minutes.  The violin part almost whines over the same few notes
against a background of deeply-tolling bells.  The fast movements jack
up the energy; the slow ones convert it to intensity.  This music peels
away layers.  You feel as if the composer has let you into her heart.

I admire Mordkovitch's playing very much.  None of this music is easy.
The Enescu strikes me as the most technically difficult, as befits the
composer's legendary virtuosity, with double- and triple-stops at high
speed.  Mordkovitch at the least gets through it, but not without some
intonation wonkiness and a tone just this side of scratch.  I mention
it only because I've not noticed these things before in her playing.  I
chalk it up to the cruelty of Enescu.  She improves greatly in the
Bacewicz, although here and there she fails to make the pitch.  Nevertheless,
I certainly don't question her musicianship.  She delivers quite fine
accounts.  She gets the emotional density so central to Bacewicz.  Ian
Fountain gives her great support, and each seeks the other out as they
play.  Add to this Chandos's sound, and you have a wonderful CD.

Steve Schwartz

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