George Enescu’s masterful work, Impressions d’Enfance, had been on my “bucket list” for some time. Its rare appearance in concert programs is understandable, given its technical difficulty and challenges for ensemble. A work like this would require a musical partner that was equally enthralled by it—not to mention, a master pianist. I approached frequent duo partner, pianist William Wolfram, and not only did he know it, but it had long been a favorite of his, though he had performed it only once before, about 20 years earlier.
Impressions quickly became the first work confirmed for my album Edge of Youth. It is a unique work for violin and piano—unlike anything else in structure, character, or sound. The work, almost autobiographical, is that of an artist looking back to his youth (Enescu was 60 years old at its writing). It is a vivid portrayal of memories though the lens of a child, tinged with the worldly view of an older gentleman who has experienced life deeply. Each movement moves seamlessly from one to the next, uninterrupted—each evoking a memory that Enescu seems to have pulled from his consciousness.
The movement titles are wonderfully descriptive—like Vieux mendiant (“The Old Beggar”) or Lune à travers les vitres (“Moon Shining through the Windows”), offering a first glimpse into the composer’s world. Enescu also provided illustrative directions. “The Old Beggar” is un poco raucamente (hoarse), ma dolce e mesto (but sweet and sad). In “Wind in the Chimney,” the violin plays quasi sul ponticello, un poco flautato, scivalando (slipping), non vibrato. The piano’s harp-like passages in, “Brook at the Bottom of the Garden,” are con una sonorita acquatica (with an acquatic sound).
Fingerings are ubiquitous—their purpose being for
color, as opposed to function.
Enescu is also meticulous in his notation. He indicates crescendo or decrescendo on almost every beat or bar, asking for a multitude of inflections. Fingerings are ubiquitous—their purpose being for color, as opposed to function, e.g. same-finger shifts for portamentos, choice of string, designated use of open strings. The use of pedal in the piano throughout is indicated on almost every beat or chord.
The challenge was to incorporate this information in a way that would evoke the aural imagery and tell the story. Enescu was a master at both instruments and fully knew their capabilities. These effects are achieved with only traditional means of playing—no electronics, no extended techniques. We can hear the raspiness in the old man’s voice, the whistling of the howling wind in the chimney, or the chirping of crickets and bird-song. Bringing the work to life required the same limitless imagination, and could not be bound by technical mechanics.
Delving into such a deep, rich approach to sound in Impressions very much influenced the other works on the album by Benjamin Britten, Missy Mazzoli, Dan Visconti, and Gabriel Prokofiev. It unleashed a new freedom in sound exploration and expression. This is the kind of work that will continually surprise with every performance. It takes a true commitment from both artists, but the discoveries are truly worth it.
Player: Violinist Janet Sung regularly performs with orchestras and in solo recitals worldwide. A former protégé of Josef Gingold and Dorothy DeLay, she is head of strings and violin professor at the DePaul University School of Music in Chicago. Her album Edge of Youth was released in April 2019 by Sono Luminus.
Title of Work: Impressions d’Enfance (Impressions from Childhood), Op. 28
Date Composed: 1940
Name of Edition: Editions Salabert (1952)