George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Strigoii (Ghosts) - Oratorio in three parts after the poem by Mihai Eminescu (completed by C. Țăranu, orchestrated by S Păutza) (1916) [45:52]
Pastorale Fantaisie for small orchestra (1899) [10:01]
Rodica Vica (soprano), Tiberius Simu (tenor), Bogdan Baciu (baritone), Alin Anca (narrator)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gabriel Bebeşelea
rec. 2017, RBB Sendesaal, Berlin
Full texts and translations included
CAPRICCIO C5346 [55:53]
What a phenomenon Enescu was! Arguably the greatest violinist of his age (indubitably so in his pupil Yehudi Menuhin’s eyes) had he not been so modest and so indifferent to self-promotion he could have been a superstar had he wished. Despite being fęted in his teens in Paris both as performer and composer he rather shunned the public glare, preferring to teach and above all to create music. When I started collecting records in the 1970s there was very little Enescu available on vinyl in the UK, perhaps just the two Romanian Rhapsodies and Menuhin’s youthful account of the 3rd Violin Sonata. Since then, the burgeoning realisation that Enescu was actually a genius has triggered the recording of most of his somewhat modest output. I use the word ‘somewhat’ because while his last work with opus number was his swansong, the affecting Chamber Symphony Op 33, Enescu left an enormous amount of unfinished music. He had a prodigious memory, enabling him to carry around a vast amount of completed music in his head, which he was simply unable to get down on paper before his death. Consequently he left an abundance of sketches, fragments and drafts of pieces that he started to write down throughout his career, but never finished.
In the last four years, CPO have released recordings his of Fourth and Fifth Symphonies in completions by his compatriot Pascal Bentoiu, and fascinating works they are too. Now we have this substantial piece, Strigoii (The Ghosts), a 45 minute oratorio for four vocal soloists and large orchestra, after the Gothic epic by the Rumanian national poet Mihai Eminescu. Enescu conceived it in 1916-17; it then existed in the form of a basic piano sketch, and a more detailed reduction of the piece, with vocal parts and instructions for orchestration. These disappeared in the chaos of the First World War but were eventually recovered and the full work was ‘completed’ in this piano form by Cornel Țăranu, who contributes the note to this issue. In recent years this version has been orchestrated by Țăranu’s younger colleague Sabin Păutza, and that’s what we hear on this disc.
The conductor of this accomplished performance, which is treated to a vivid, atmospheric recording is the Romanian Gabriel Bebeşelea who claims that Strigoii constitutes the missing link between Enescu’s early songs and his masterpiece, the opera Oedipe, which occupied him for the best part of a quarter of a century. While the work seems to be categorised as an ‘Oratorio’, Țăranu’s note is unfortunately full of inconsistencies which one assumes have been ‘lost in translation’. At one point in his text he calls it a “Tone Poem”, at another says that it is written for “four soloists, choir and orchestra” (there is no choir). Țăranu also states that Enescu set the whole of Eminescu’s text, which is reproduced in full in the booklet and translated into both German and English. This isn’t true, either; there is a big cut in the text during what Enescu designates as Part Two of Strigoii. An oddity is that the majority of the vocal part is delivered by the amazingly ripe bass of Alin Anca in a narration that falls somewhere between sprechgesang and song. I have to say that Anca’s declamation of the Romanian language is utterly compelling in its own right, regardless of what the words actually mean – although the English translation provided seems to prioritise the provision of equivalent rhyme above idiomatic accuracy (I do not speak Romanian but at best the translation can be described as McGonagallesque).
The plot isn’t complicated; King Arald rides through the underworld carrying the corpse of his dead queen – his destination is the secluded dwelling of the magician whom Arald implores to reincarnate his wife. The work builds to a passionate love duet between Arald and his all-too-briefly revived queen before both are consumed by the Earth and its endless night. The vast majority of Eminescu’s lines are set by Enescu, though most of the text is purely descriptive and thus declaimed by the narrator. Of the other three roles the expressive, clear-toned tenor Tiberius Simu contributes a suitably virile and heroic Arald while the other two soloists, fine as they are, are limited to a couple of verses apiece.
The very opening of the work, a tolling bell, a quietly rumbling timpani roll, and serpentine bassoon and bass clarinet lines over spookily tremolando strings is representative of the whole. Dark colours and atmospheric textures predominate, although these temporarily brighten when the narrative involves references to the Queen. Enescu favours a chromatic approach to melody while Pautza’s completed orchestration emerges as rather thick, with the imaginative use of tuned percussion to vary the texture. There are some imaginative touches; the galloping rhythms that open Part Two and accompany Arald’s journey are most evocative and seem almost perky compared to the high Gothic gloom that smothers the rest of the piece, while the brass and string glissandi that occur at the climax of Part Three are quite extraordinary. At times I felt the strings of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra sounded a little tentative, not surprising given the unfamiliarity of the score, but in any case Gabriel Bebeşelea manages to shape a coherent and satisfying account. His passionate commitment to the work emerges in every bar, while the recording is richly detailed.
I found some aesthetic parallels between Strigoii and both Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, ‘Song of the Night’ and Bartók’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, both of which were completed at around the same time. While Szymanowski employs a more luxuriant orchestral palette to convey his vision of the perfumed East, Bartók invests his similarly-scaled opera with greater variety of pace and texture than does Enescu in this oratorio. Given the unstinting chromaticism that dominates Strigoii however, it is perhaps unsurprising that Țăranu’s note makes more of the work’s affinity to Berg and Zemlinsky. While Strigoii may fall short of being revelatory, and certainly inhabits a netherworld of unrelenting Gothic gloom, it is worth hearing for sure– indeed anything that fleshes out one’s understanding of Enescu's generally underappreciated genius is something for which we should be truly grateful.
And there’s another example in the shape of the filler, the Pastorale Fantaisie from 1899, by which time the 18 year old composer was already being celebrated as a prodigy by the Parisian glitterati. Just a year beforehand, the premiere of Enescu’s Op 1, the Počme Roumain had wowed the sophisticates at the Concerts Colonne. This Fantaisie, his orchestral follow-up, was accorded a more muted, though not unenthusiastic reception, although it is a very different piece and was premiered at a time when Paris was reeling from the unexpected death of the French president. Enescu seems to have been disappointed, however and consigned the work to his ‘bottom drawer’ where it effectively stayed until Gabriel Bebeşelea rediscovered it 119 years later. It’s a gently interesting nature poem in an ABA form. It features some lovely wind solos, including some rather Sibelian material for the cor anglais, and a coda which projects a mildly Tchaikovskian tang. It is far removed from the heady world of Strigoii.
All in all then, this release represents another adventurous issue from Capriccio, a label which seems to thrive on its mission of uncovering and recording neglected and even unknown works from the twentieth century. Many readers who are already devoted to the music of Enescu will doubtless already have this disc; others who find themselves drawn to little-known music from the early part of the last century need not hesitate.
Previous review: Ralph Moore