Fellow musicians—especially string players—have resorted to some striking superlatives to characterize George Enescu (1881–1955). Pablo Casals, a frequent chamber partner, once remarked that since Mozart, there had been no greater musical phenomenon, while Enescu’s student Yehudi Menuhin believed the Op. 25 Third Sonata (“dans le caractère populaire roumain”) represented “the greatest achievement of musical notation” he had ever known.
Yet for all eminence of this Romanian master, there remain, nearly 65 years after his death, astonishing gaps in awareness of Enescu’s legacy—not only with the general public, but even among professionals. The Romanian pianist Angela Drăghicescu, now based in Seattle, is passionately devoted to shining a light on hitherto missing gems. In particular, she has been championing Enescu’s Piano Trio No. 1 in G minor, a youthful but substantial four-movement work long believed to have been lost and only rediscovered in the past few years. Drăghicescu has led efforts to get the newly surfaced score published and to bring it into the repertoire.
Enescu was only 16 when he wrote his First Trio, soon after moving to Paris—where the alternate spelling of his name (“Georges Enesco”) began to circulate. It was first performed in 1898 in a private salon (with the composer’s patroness Elena Bibescu at the keyboard, Enescu on violin, and R. Loys on cello). Enescu then lost track of the unpublished score amid the chaos of the First World War, and the trio was not performed again live until its 21st-century rediscovery. That performance in Romania took place in 2015 in a small venue. There have been a couple of recent recordings of the Trio No. 1 as well—at least one of which appears still to be available, by the Trio Enescu (from 2016, distributed by Naxos).
Drăghicescu spearheaded the effort to introduce the Trio this past July as part of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2019 Summer Festival. The performance, which took place on July 8 at Nordstrom Recital Hall, included Drăghicescu on piano, SCMS’s artistic director James Ehnes on violin, and Ani Aznavoorian on cello, and marked the US premiere—indeed, the premiere contemporary performance in a high-profile context.
Enescu’s G minor Trio is by no means a work of mere “juvenilia.” The teenage composer’s models—formally and rhetorically—are unmistakably Brahms and Schumann, with some Beethoven, reflecting the years he had just spent at the Vienna Conservatory. Yet the music is not simply derivative. On first hearing, it makes a powerful impression through its ambitious conception and execution, its convincing emotional scope, and—especially notably given the composer’s youth—its fluency and effective balancing of the instruments.
“The writing for cello feels fantastic. He uses the full range of the instrument, not just the sweet spot in the middle,” Ani Aznavoorian told me. According to James Ehnes, who reintroduced Enescu’s Octet from 1900 at the 2018 Seattle Summer Festival, “the trio is attractive in all the best ways. It’s fun to play and charming. I think that there is a lot of room for pieces like this that aren’t trying to change the world but are exciting and beautiful for their own sake.”
Shortly after this history-making premiere, Angela Drăghicescu took time to discuss the background of the trio and its significance and place in Enescu’s work in general.
How did you become aware of the existence of the Trio No. 1?
It was known that Enescu had written it, but from my research in Bucharest I deemed that it had been lost. In 2012 I found out that this piece still existed, but the references to it online then quickly disappeared again—because I was told there were lawsuits from the French and the Enescu Foundation. When Enescu died [in Paris], his wife sold all publishing rights to publishing houses in France, but a testament that was subsequently discovered stated that any unpublished manuscripts of his works later found must first be performed in Romania or by a Romanian.
When I found out the score did still exist, I searched in the archives of the George Enescu National Museum, which happens to be just a block from where I was living in Bucharest. Incredibly, I found the original handwritten manuscript of the piano part. The violin and cello parts had survived separately in Paris. Why these different locations? I realized that it’s simple: the musicians must have packed their things after the performance and left with their individual parts.
The trio has just been published by Editura Muzeului George Enescu (with a copyright by the French house Durand Salabert), but it’s almost impossible for people to find online. My next step would be to try to take it to a bigger publisher and also to get it recorded on a major label. It takes the proper musicians—like James Ehnes and Ani Aznavoorian—to give it the clout it needs to be recognized.
What inspired the teenage Enescu to write this piece? And did he really write it in an afternoon—the same composer who was later famous for his perfectionism?
Enescu had just moved to Paris to study at the Conservatoire with Massenet and Fauré. His Opus 1, Poème roumain, had caught the attention of a socialite, Elena Bibescu, who was also an amateur pianist, and he wrote it for her. She spread the legend that he wrote it incredibly fast, which became part of the lore around Enescu. The trio was well-received when it was first performed in 1898 at one of her private salons in Paris. He wrote down his thoughts almost like sketches at first.
It’s interesting that the manuscript for this trio is clear enough that I could read it easily, whereas the one for his Piano Trio No. 2 in A minor (from 1916) was said to be almost impossible to read. The Piano Trio in A minor by Enescu was largely inaccessible until Pascal Bentoiu made his edition during 1998 from the composer’s hastily written score, resulting in a concise while often austere piece. In his youth and student years, Enescu was a lot more conscientious about finishing things. But as he grew older, he became extremely meticulous and picky with his music. That’s why we have only 33 official works by this composer. He would change his mind a lot and take forever to write something.
What about the quality of the First Trio—what does it tell us about the 16-year-old Enescu and about the future composer?
He was much more German oriented at the time from his work at the Vienna Conservatory. In Paris he will become more French. So, the trio doesn’t sound like the familiar Enesco, but it also doesn’t sound like something a kid would write, which is why this is such an important discovery, in my opinion. This isn’t just a youthful piece like Mahler’s A minor Piano Quartet. The Piano Trio No. 1 is the work of an accomplished composer and shows some of the first signs of his genius. Even with these very German models, he’s already introducing snippets of Romanian folk music: like in the second movement, which starts off with an actual folk tune.
You’ve pointed out that Enescu was unhappy with his writing for the cello in later works. Yet I was struck but the prominent role for the cello here, and how well integrated it is into the fabric.
At this point, he used the cello in a smart and appropriate way.
Later on he would treat the cello very much like a violin, in my opinion—in terms of how he uses its texture and register.
Why has this experience of the first US performance been important for you?
I think Enescu’s first complete piano trio is a wonderful piece and deserves to be known. I have not been able to find any references to a performance after its original premiere in 1898, and aside from the 2016 performance in a small museum in Romania, it had not been played live in a major venue anywhere: neither in Romania nor anywhere else in Europe. But the existence now of this publication is still little known, and I want to change that. I will also perform it at the next George Enescu Festival in 2021—which is every other year, alternating with the Enescu International Competition. It should get lots of cultural coverage there.