Enescu: Sonata No. 3 in A minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 25, In the Rumanian style

It’s altogether too easy to pigeonhole George Enescu (1881-1955) as that Romanian nationalist chap who wrote the ever-popular Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 for orchestra. The actual state of affairs about Enescu is far more intriguing. He was an astounding musician, gifted at the astronomical level of a Mozart. His instrument was the violin, by which he made his living as one of the giants of the early twentieth century, touring, concertizing, recording, and teaching. (San Francisco-born Yehudi Menuhin was among his protégés.) As if that weren’t enough, he was a conductor of such ability as to be a candidate as Toscanini’s successor at the New York Philharmonic, a pianist of such skill as to elicit the admiration of no less than Alfred Cortot, a capable musical entrepreneur and manager, and last but not least, a superlative composer whose output ranges far beyond the few Romanian nationalist works for which he is mostly remembered. He achieved all this over a lifetime beset with severe health and personal problems, but remained a humble, self-effacing gentleman no matter what his difficulties. Menuhin described him as “the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever experienced.”

Admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at age seven, Enescu evolved along lines similar to his exact contemporary Béla Bartók: a youthful period of late Romanticism followed by an immersion in native folk music, the whole brought together with the styles and idioms of the early twentieth century. No Enescu work exemplifies that journey more fully than his 1926 Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Opus 25, In the Rumanian style. Even if it is technically a sonata for violin and piano, in reality it’s a sonata for a wide variety of instruments—the piano as cymbalon, lute, and pizzicato strings, the violin as crickets, larks, and most importantly, the human voice in the parlando rubato style that Bartók employed so dramatically in his two rhapsodies. The sheer range of its sonic effects is mesmerizing, and how Enescu managed to get all of that down on paper was the “greatest achievement in musical notation” for its day, according to Menuhin.

As a result, the Enescu Third Sonata challenges its performers not only technically and musically, but also stylistically, conceptually, and poetically. Enescu’s meticulous notation, no matter how scrupulously followed, is but a starting point on the way to an effective performance. Only by seeking the spirit behind the symbols can Enescu’s prophetic masterpiece of a distant sonic world come to life, in all its fascination and otherworldly allure.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(April 2019)