ENESCU: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Ad Libitum Quartet) (Naxos: 8.554721)
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String Quartets Nos. 1& 2
The Romanian composerand violinist George Enescu may now be seen as the most important figure in themusical history of his native country. Born in Moldavia in 1881, he had hisfirst violin lessons there from a gypsy violinist. On the advice of EduardCaudella, a pupil of Vieuxtemps and professor at the Iaşi Conservatory, hewas sent, at the age of seven, to the Conservatory in Vienna, where he waseventually taught by the younger Joseph Hellmesberger, taking counterpoint andsubsequently composition lessons from Robert Fuchs. In 1893 he moved to Parisfor further study as a violinist with Marsick and composition lessons fromMassenet and then from Faure at the Conservatoire, with important studies incounterpoint and fugue under Andre Gedalge. In Gedalge's class hiscontemporaries included Koechlin, Ravel, Roger-Ducasse and Florent Schmitt andother fellow-students included the pianist Alfred Cortot, who expressed hisadmiration of Enescu's ability as a pianist. In 1897 a concert of his work wasgiven in Paris and by 1899, when he won the first violin prize at theConservatoire, he was already known as a composer. His subsequent careerbrought him similar distinction both as a performer and as a conductor.
Although Enescu'sactivities were centred on Paris, he maintained his contact with Romania,returning home in regular summer visits. In 1904 he formed the relativelyshort-lived Enescu Quartet with Fritz Schneider, Henri Casadesus and LouisFournier, but at the same time performed with other contemporaries of thehighest distinction, including Casals, Thibaud, Casella, Cortot and, in privatechamber music, at least, with Kreisler. The greatly respected older violinistEug?¿ne Ysa??e, for whom Cesar Franck had written his Violin Sonata, dedicatedto Enescu the third of his unaccompanied violin sonatas, the Sonate-Ballade.
Meanwhile his international career as a violinist was developing. InRomania he did much to encourage younger musicians, through theBucharest Conservatory and the Conservatory at Iaşi. He spent the waryears largely in Romania, where he gave concerts for the wounded, once Romaniahad entered the war on the side of the Allies, and established the GeorgeEnescu Symphony Orchestra in 1917 in Iaşi from the musicians he couldgather, now that Bucharest had been occupied by the Central Powers. With theend of the war he was able to resume his international career, generallykeeping the summer months for composition, but the second war in 1939 confinedhim once more to Romania, now as the husband of the unstable Princess MarucaCantacuzino, with whom he had enjoyed a happier relationship for some 25 years.
After the war he returned to Paris and continued an international round ofconcerts and master classes, in spite of an illness that affected his hearing.
The Communist regime at home and the abdication of the King, representative ofa royal family to which Enescu had always been loyal, kept him abroad, althoughthe new government would have welcomed the return of a figure of his stature.
His final years in Paris were spent in poverty, exacerbated after a stroke in1954.
Yehudi Menuhin, in hisautobiographical Unfinished Journey, described the powerful impressionthat Enescu made on him, when, as a small child, he first saw him at a concertin San Francisco. He was later to become Enescu's pupil in Paris and has giventestimony to the strong influence that Enescu had on his musical development.
Other pupils included Arthur Grumiaux, Christian Ferras and Ida Haendel.
Enescu's StringQuartet No.1 in E flat major was started in 1916, using some earlier material,continued in 1918, and completed at the end of 1920. It was dedicated to theFlonzelay Quartet, an ensemble established in 1902 by the banker Edward J. DeCoppet and devoted exclusively to quartet performance. It was this quartet thatgave the first performance of the work in 1921. The string quartet is a highlyoriginal and complex composition, in spite of the apparent simplicity of itsopening, with a theme that is marked sotto voce and tranquillo, leadingto a secondary theme in G minor. There are moments of great delicacy in thecentral section, which eventually builds to a dynamic climax with reminiscencesof the first theme and motifs from the secondary theme. This leads to a muchabridged recapitulation, when the first theme returns in a high register,marked delicatamente, reappearing once more as the movement draws to aclose. There is a meditative mood in the second movement, as the direction Andantepensieroso suggests, and here, as elsewhere, there are clear thematicconnections to the preceding movement. A predominant motif of this B majormovement, in which the original key is soon modified, includes the interval ofan augmented fourth, part of the opening theme, which is developed and variedas the movement proceeds. Mutes, which had been used in the hushed finalsection of the second movement, are removed for the scherzo, which, while itlacks a formal trio, brings a relaxation of tension and no direct return of theopening material. The last movement develops earlier motifs, at timescontrapuntally, before moving to a theme and a series of variations, followedby a song-like melody that is to appear in various guises before the quartetends.
The String QuartetNo.2 in G major, which defies succinct description, was completed on 30th
May 1951, but was the final form of a work that had been with Enescu for manyyears, certainly since 1920 and possibly earlier. It was dedicated to MadameElisabeth Shurtleff Coolidge, better known as Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, andwas first performed by the Stradivarius Quartet in Boston in 1953, the year ofher death. The quartet is motivically connected, as one motif leads to another.
The first movement opens in serene tranquillity, its first thematic materialgiving way to a march-like section, then relaxing into the mood and pace of theopening. The instruments are muted in the second movement, set seemingly in Emajor and opened by the cello, recalling the first theme of the precedingmovement, and here again one thing leads to another, as intervals and rhythmsare explored in a closely woven texture, subdued in mood even in its approachto a dynamic climax. There is a mysterious passage played sul ponticello, nearthe bridge, while bowing on the fingerboard adds to the effect. A more forcefuldynamic climax soon subsides, as the first violin is heard over tremolo secondviolin and viola. The calm is momentarily interrupted by the descending notesof the cello, which then proceeds, as before, to have the last word. The thirdmovement is a scherzo, again closely related to what has passed, and leads to afinal movement in a form resembling that of a rondo. It is, at all events, amovement of some variety, with suggestions of Romanian inspiration, much asBartok had absorbed into his international musical language the spirit ofHungary.