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 CHAN 10476 (F) (DDD) TT: 60:49

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 Fauré, among others, as well as counterpoint with the great pedagogue of his time, André Gédalge. 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 Bartók 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, César Franck, and Fauré. 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 Bartók, 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 Bartók. 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. Bartók'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 Bartókian 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.

S.G.S. (August 2008)