George Enescu conducts NYPSO - Live recordings: 1937-38
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Le Nozze di Figaro Overture [5:20]
Symphony No. 40 in G minor [22:10]
Ion Nonna OTESCU (1888-1940)
Excerpts from De la Matei cetire: Symphony of the Lake [5:55]; Prelude to Act 2 [5:02]; Intermission Talk [15:40]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 2 in C major [37:05]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Emperor [37:28]
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/George Enescu
rec. 31 January 1937 (Mozart, Otescu, Schumann); 10 February 1938 (Beethoven) (Air check private recording), Carnegie Hall, New York
OPUS KURA OPK2112/3 [61:48 + 77:57]

This 2 CD set was released this year to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the death of the Romanian musician George Enescu (1881-1955). I refer to him as a musician, as he was equally gifted as a composer, violinist, pianist, teacher and as a conductor, the role he assumes here. Yehudi Menuhin, his most famous pupil, said of his teacher that he was ‘the greatest musician and the most formative influence’ he had ever experienced. Pablo Casals referred to him as ‘the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart’.

Enescu’s relationship with the New York Philharmonic dated back to 1924, when he performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto under Walter Damrosch. Between 1937–1939 he gave 27 performances with the orchestra, both as violin soloist and conductor, in works ranging from Bach to Walter Piston.

These CBS Sunday afternoon broadcasts are the only two that have survived of this remarkable artistic collaboration. Enescu was greatly admired by the NYP players, unlike some conductors, who suffered at the hands of the ‘Toscanini mafia’. This admiration is tangible in these compelling documents, which constitute a valuable addition to the slender discography of this esteemed musician. By all accounts, the orchestra play their hearts out for him, and the mutual respect is palpable.

The 1937 concert opens with an energetic and buoyant reading of Mozart’s Overture Le Nozze di Figaro. Enescu conjures up an infectious convivial mood of energy and vitality. This contrasts with the darker undertones of the G minor Symphony which follows, where tempi for all four movements are well-judged. Enescu’s flexible beat steers its way through the ebb and flow and responds instinctively to the contours of the music. The slow movement is particularly beguiling, where the players relish the music’s lyricism. In the finale one senses real elation, the orchestra delivering a brisk account both seductive and assured.

The first half ends with an interesting curiosity – two short selections from the fellow Romanian composer Ion Nonna Otescu’s opera De la Matei cetire. Symphony of the Lake is lushly romantic and melodic, with a dramatic middle section and a gusto ending. The Prelude to Act 2 opens busily and boasts a more Romanian folk complexion, Enescu proving himself securely on home territory.

A fifteen minute intermission talk is included, given by the American composer and music critic Deems Taylor. He delivers rather hagiographical biographical portraits of George Enescu, who he refers to as a ‘musician’s musician’, and Walter Damrosch. The German-born American conductor and composer, Damrosch (1862-1950), had just celebrated his 75th birthday. As well as being long-time director of the New York Symphony Orchestra, he did much to promote the cause of American music.

I’ve always had a particular affection for Enescu’s studio recording of Schumann’s Second Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, set down by Decca in 1947 (Dutton CDK 1209). So it was interesting comparing it with this live airing, which forms the second half of the concert. Enescu obviously has an innate understanding of the structure and architecture of the score and, surprisingly, it is the only Schumann work listed in his discography that he conducted. Though he shaves a little time off the Scherzo in the live reading, it in no way sounds rushed, a fault that blights some versions I’ve heard. Sonically inferior and less manicured in terms of polish and finish than the studio account of ten years later, which is only to be expected, this concert performance definitely has more spontaneity, freshness and edge. All concerned respond intuitively to the atmosphere of the live event. The result is more vital to my ears, and gives the feeling of music being created on the wing.

The Beethoven Piano Concerto with Rudolf Serkin is an air-check private recording, more recently discovered and very welcome, as this was the only collaboration between the two artists. Sound quality doesn’t match that of the 1937 concert, and there’s some acetate surface swish and crackle, more noticeable in the slow movement. Nevertheless, this is a small price to pay for such outstanding musicianship. Enescu is not one to push or lead, but anticipates his soloist; I found this quality also evident in his collaborations with Menuhin. Serkin brings to the performance aristocratic poise and refinement. The opening movement is magisterial, and the slow movement eloquently phrased. The performance ends with a thrilling and unfettered finale. Weber's Freischutz Overture and Brahms Fourth Symphony made up the rest of the 1938 programme, but unfortunately are not included here.

Despite the age of the recordings, they have been brought vividly to life by the expert audio restorations carried out by Ward Marston. Announcements (except for the Beethoven) and applause have been retained. Informative liner-notes are in Japanese and English, and the writer Robert Manari has included the music critic Olin Downes’ insightful reviews of both concerts, giving a contemporary perspective.

Stephen Greenbank

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