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Sunday, May 28, 2017

George Enescu - Piano Sonata No. 1; Suite No. 2 (Matei Varga)


Composer: George Enescu
  1. Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 24 No. 1: I. Allegro molto moderato e grave
  2. Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 24 No. 1: II. Presto vivace
  3. Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 24 No. 1: III. Andante molto espressivo
  4. Pièces impromptues, Op. 18: VI. Choral: Moderato, non troppo lento
  5. Pièces impromptues, Op. 18: VII. Carillon nocturne: L’istesso tempo (Moderato, non troppo lento)
  6. Suite No. 2 in D major, Op. 10: I. Toccata
  7. Suite No. 2 in D major, Op. 10: II. Sarabande
  8. Suite No. 2 in D major, Op. 10: III. Pavane
  9. Suite No. 2 in D major, Op. 10: IV. Bourrée

Matei Varga, piano
Date: 2010
Label: Naxos



My familiarity with George Enescu’s piano music, up until now, has been nonexistent. Not so a good deal of his output for orchestra and various chamber ensemble combinations, but his works for solo piano were terra incognita to me until I received this release. Part of the reason may be that Enescu, one of the great violinists and pedagogues of his age, didn’t write that much for solo piano, at least not that fall under the category of works with opus number, which includes only six entries. About two dozen miscellaneous pieces, however, not all of them necessarily early efforts, are cataloged under piano works without opus number. In any case, of the six items with opus number, two and 28/57ths of them are on the present disc. The 28/57ths are the two Pièces impromptues , Chorale and “Carillon nocturne,” which belong to the composer’s Suite No. 3, these being the two concluding pieces in the set. Apparently, they’re played quite frequently as standalones apart from the full suite.

The First Sonata was completed in 1924 during the time Enescu was working on his opera Œdipe . The work is in three movements, but doesn’t quite conform to layout expectations. The first movement, for example, carries an unusual tempo designation of Allegro molto moderato e grave . In this case, we can say with certainty that the molto applies to the moderato rather than to the allegro , not only because it’s further qualified by grave , but because the music unfolds at a quite slow, one might say almost processional, pace. Its character is difficult to describe. Neither tonal nor atonal, neither strongly rhythmic nor arrhythmic, it seems to float in a kind of amniotic fluid, tethered to the keyboard by the slimmest of umbilical cords. While it doesn’t sound quite like anything I’ve heard before, its musical seeds are easy enough to identify. This is music influenced by Debussy, Scriabin, and to some extent, perhaps, Nikolai Medtner. The piece has a certain atmospheric beauty about it, with passages of crystalline chiming high up on the keyboard that add to the feeling of being suspended in a watery ecosphere.

The mood is broken by the second movement, a strongly rhythmic scherzo that resembles a cross between the perpetual motion of a piece like Bartók’s Allegro barbaro and a very jazzy boogie-woogie with all manner of syncopations and cross accents where you least expect them. It’s hard to imagine that Enescu didn’t intend this movement to be rip-roaring fun, and that’s exactly how Matei Varga plays it. The finale, this time marked Andante molto espressivo , is another slow-moving movement that, in expression and mood, if you’ll excuse the analogy, returns to the womblike atmosphere of the first movement.

Enescu composed the D-Major Suite in 1903, 21 years before the sonata. But it’s more than chronological time that separates the two works. In terms of musical vocabulary and style, the suite is a distillation of Baroque dance types—Toccata, Sarabande, Pavane, and Bourée—into a pure Debussyian Impressionism. Is it significant that Debussy’s own three-movement Pour le piano suite, containing two of the same dance movements, a Sarabande and a Toccata, was completed two years earlier? I don’t know, but as a student of Massenet and Fauré in Paris from 1895, Enescu could not have escaped being exposed to and influenced by Debussy. Enescu’s suite is gorgeous music, especially the Sarabande and Pavane, which could easily be classified as salon music, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense.

The Chorale and “Carillon nocturne,” which we already know come from the Suite No. 3, were written between 1913 and 1916 and thus stand midway between the suite and the sonata. The Chorale is exactly that, a study in four-part harmonization that proceeds in more or less regular chord progressions until it doesn’t. And it’s the “until it doesn’t” that makes it such a hauntingly beautiful piece. In certain ways, it reminds me of some of the late piano works by Liszt, with its bell-like tolling and chiming. According to Anthony Short’s program note, the piece is written in “unmeasured bars of immense length.” More bell-like tolling and chiming are heard in the “Carillon nocturne,” but these are the large clangorous church bells that peal with the clashing overtones of diminished and augmented octaves as they’re rung or nudged by wind, giving the impression of a symphonic tintinnabulation.

Matei Varga is an award-winning young Romanian pianist who has taken home a number of prizes, including, significantly for this recording, a win at the George Enescu Competition in Bucharest. It’s a rare artist indeed whose playing of works that are rather far afield in idiom from my zone of familiarity and comfort performs them so persuasively that I find myself instantly swayed. Varga is such an artist. Given the limited volume of Enescu’s piano music, I realize one can’t make an entire career of it, and Varga hasn’t, but after hearing this Naxos Enescu disc, I hope Varga will bring us as much more of the composer’s piano music as he can. A beautiful experience and strongly recommended.

-- Jerry Dubins, FANFARE

More reviews:


George Enescu (19 August 1881 – 4 May 1955) was a Romanian composer, violinist, pianist, conductor, and teacher, regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and Romania's most important musician. He was the youngest student ever admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven. Many of Enescu's works were influenced by Romanian folk music, his most popular compositions being the two Romanian Rhapsodies. He was also a noted violin teacher. Yehudi Menuhin, Christian Ferras, Ivry Gitlis, Arthur Grumiaux, Serge Blanc, Ida Haendel and Joan Field were among his pupils.


Matei Varga (born in Bucharest in 1980) is a Romanian pianist. He studied with Ana Pitis, Ioana Minei and Sandu Sandrin at the National University of Music in Bucharest. Varga is a prizewinner of numerous international competitions, among them the Maria Canals Competition in Barcelona, the Porto International Piano Competition, and the George Enescu Competition in Bucharest, where he was also awarded a special prize for the best performance of Enescu’s Piano Sonata, Op. 24. Varga has performed as a solo recitalist, chamber musician, and concerto soloist at major venues around the world.


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