Review of 2019 Salzburg Festival - Enescu, et al.

Statue of George Enescu in Bucharest

Statue of George Enescu in Bucharest

The accent this year in Salzburg has been on George Enescu, the Romanian who lived from 1881 to 1955. As you can tell by the dates, there is no anniversary. The festival is simply honoring, or accenting, Enescu, which is a good idea, because he was an extraordinary fellow, who probably doesn’t get enough airtime.

Enescu was a composer, yes — and also one of the greatest violinists in history. Last year in this town, I interviewed Vilde Frang, the young Norwegian violinist. I asked her about her favorites, her heroes of the violin. The first name out of her mouth was “Enescu.” Furthermore, Enescu was a pianist and a conductor. He was a talent of talents.

Little of his music is heard today, however. The Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 is a staple — an enduring hit. But the rest of his catalogue lies under a bushel, and that includes the other Romanian Rhapsody, No. 2.

This summer, the Salzburg Festival is seeking to remedy that, to an extent. The festival program is dotted with Enescu: a violin sonata, a piano quintet, Œdipe (his sole opera), etc.

One night, members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra played his Octet — a work recorded by Vilde Frang last year. (I should say that she spearheaded this recording, making it along with seven of her colleagues, of course.) The Salzburg concert took place in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum, which, years ago, I nicknamed the “Grosser Sauna.” It is so very hot in there, as in all Salzburg venues, at least in the summer.

That America is over-air-conditioned, I will accept — as long as others accept that other places are under-air-conditioned.

The most famous and best octet in music history is Mendelssohn’s, written when the composer was 16. Enescu was 19 when he wrote his. It appeared in 1900. Both of these octets, I should say, are string octets — works written for twice a string quartet.

Like Mendelssohn’s, the Enescu Octet is in four movements, and they have French markings. (Mendelssohn’s do not, maybe I should say. And French, as you know, has long been a language of Romania.) Enescu’s second movement, for example, is marked Très fougueux, or Very fiery — and then Moins vite, Plus vite, Très vite, and Extrèmement vite (Less fast, Faster, Very fast, and Extremely fast).

Eight players is a lot for a chamber ensemble. And, indeed, an octet sounds quasi-orchestral. A group of eight musicians — not to mention nine, forming a nonet — hovers between a chamber ensemble and a chamber orchestra. Enescu’s Octet has a wonderful fullness, among other things.

It has a flavor of Eastern Europe, and of the Gypsy. It also has a touch of modernism, which was then being born. Enescu gives plenty of solo opportunities to a viola and a cello, in addition to a violin — generous for a violinist composer.

Contemplating the Enescu Octet, I thought of the word “strange.” It is a high compliment from Harold Bloom, the literary critic. He uses “strange” to mean “distinctive,” “of its own kind,” “unlike other things.” That is high praise indeed.

The Vienna players gave this piece an excellent reading, making a persuasive case for it. Works that are unplayed, or little known, tend to be called “neglected.” But some of them — most of them? — deserve to lie under bushels, frankly. The Enescu Octet is not one of those works.

Leading the players was Rainer Honeck, who is accustomed to leading: He is one of the concertmasters of the Vienna Phil. He is also a brother of Manfred Honeck, who is the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and one of the best conductors in the world. The No. 2 violinist was Christoph Koncz, who had a movie career, early: At age nine, he was the child prodigy in The Red Violin (1998).

Yet another violinist onstage was Adela Frasineanu, whose participation was fitting: There ought to be at least one Romanian player in the Enescu Octet, don’t you agree?

The concert began with a sextet, the one by Brahms in G major, Op. 36. At the end of the program, the audience applauded and applauded. They do this in Austria, or at least in Salzburg. We Americans would be home by the time these people stop applauding. Finally, the players sat down for an encore. You knew it would be Mendelssohn. I was thinking the last movement. Instead, it was the third, the Scherzo.