The Fires of Carpathia
Paul Hall, Juilliard School
Johann Sebastian Bach: Selections from The Art of the Fugue: Contrapunctus I, IV and V
George Enescu: Airs in Romanian Folk Style – Sonata for Violin and Piano Number 3, Opus 25 (In the popular Rumanian style) – Sarabande for solo violin (American premiere) – Piano Quintet, Opus 29
Enescu Chamber Players: Donald Weilerstein, Jennifer Curtis (Violins), Nichola Man (Viola), Claire Bryant (Cello), Vivian Weilerstein (Piano)
D. Weilerstein (© The Juilliard School)
A few years before his death, I asked Yehudi Menuhin who was the most vital artist he had ever worked with. In less than an instant, he declared, “Oh, George Enescu, no question about it. He was the greatest artist of the 20th Century. Not only as a violinist, as a teacher and composer, but as a human being.” Mr. Menuhin’s beatific smile said far more than words.
So one must ask why Enescu is simply a name. Why, with dozens of chamber and orchestral works to his credit, as well as one massive opera, he is ignored in the United Kingdom and America, countries he greatly admired. The inclusive Kobbe’s Complete Opera Guide doesn’t even list him in the index. The last decade of ConcertoNet lists dozens of French performances, but only four mentions in the United States.
Perhaps Enescu is best known for his two Rumanian Rhapsodies, early works which are considered somewhat declassées for serious listeners. (Enescu himself was embarrassed by their success.) Perhaps his “ethnic” style is superficially too close to the Hungarian modal pieces by Bartók and Kodály. Or perhaps Enescu was so versatile in so many styles that we Americans, who like to put everything in the right compartment of our toolboxes, can’t find where he should be placed.
Or perhaps it was Big Country Protectionism. Dinky little states were allowed their one Grieg, one Dvorák, one Sibelius. But when an Enescu could conquer the world with his violin, there would be no reason to make him an international composing luminary.
Whatever the reason, the Enescu Chamber Players–a group mainly of Juilliard teachers and alumni–played some astonishing music last night, as well as a work which I believe should sink into obscurity.
For piano and strings, the composer provided a great variety of sounds. Two pieces for solo violin could have been written by two different composers. His Third Vioin Sonata was as exciting in its exploration of Rumanian themes as Bartók had been of Hungary’s hinterland.
Yet the evening began with the string quartet playing three Bach fugues from his Art of the Fugue. The reason became evident when Donald Weilerstein performed the New York premiere of Enescu’s Sarabande. Enescu and Pablo Casals were the first to establish Bach’s solo music in the repertory, and the Sarabande was a product of Bach raised to the 20th Century. One thought immediately of Bartók’s Sonata (written for Menuhin), but where Bartók eschewed his folk inspiration, this work had touches of Rumania amidst the rich double-fingering, the trills and the long melodic lines. Mr. Weilerstein added no heavy Rumanian vibrato, but played it with an ease and breadth, exposing the Baroque architectural outlines. The piece came from a recently-discovered sketch, but deserves any violinist’s attention.
J. Curtis (© The Juillard School)
The other solo work, Airs in Rumanian Style was played by Jennifer Curtis, who introduced it to New York last year. This was a Rumanian–not a gypsy–violin. Where Mr. Weilerstein played a lean classical violin, Ms. Curtis performed with a rich, golden tone and sticking with this golden sound throughout. That could not have been easy, for the piece dances from major to minor modes (sometimes within a single measure!), trills, chromatics and harmonics. They were obviously Rumanian–though one has the feeling that Enescu was showing off his virtuosity.
(Enescu fans would deny that emphatically. His, they say, was a purity which wouldn’t allow mere gymnastics. )
Like Bartók in his maturity, no real folk tunes were written here, but the rhythms, East European sadness and ancient modes made it entirely a picture of Enescu’s homeland.
The Third Violin Sonata was the only work familiar to me, though perhaps I like it because it resembles Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Dances. The piece is close to 30 minutes long, it seems appallingly difficult for any soloists, if only for its jagged, constantly changing metres, but listening to it is a mesmeric experience. Mr. Weilerstein again, with his wife and partner Vivian Weilerstein, did the honors, getting through with some gorgeous playing.
The final piece was Enescu’s “escape” to Paris, where he had studied (with Fauré and Massenet) and wrote a gigantic two-movement Piano Quintet with hardly a touch of the Balkans. It could have been written by many a French composer who had inspiration, competence, confidence and an enormous amount to say. But I kept hoping that Mr. Enescu would finally come to an end. I liked the prickly second movement, with its teasing almost-theme beginning passed from one instrument to another, and its fairly wild animated finale.
One might call it majestic, but having lived for a year in that region of the world, I preferred preceding works far more. They had the fire, the archaisms and the unpredictability of Enescu’s homeland and his heart, Rumania.