With the 2016 Menuhin competition and centenary celebrations in full swing across several London venues, it is entirely appropriate that consideration of all things violin should include a celebration of Yehudi’s teacher George Enescu. Of course the relationship between the two great violinists went far beyond that of mere teacher-pupil, as Menuhin often put on public record. I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Menuhin in 1998 about Enescu and his music. Menuhin recalled with great passion and emotion that the three greatest musicians he “had the honour of knowing were Enescu, Bartok and Furtwängler – each unique in personality, understanding and vision, but in all of them music lived and poured out of them. To make music with them was unforgettable, but Enescu – oh, Enescu – that gentle, selfless man – had something that you will not ever find elsewhere as a performer and in his compositions. From him I soaked in this special world of Romania and its music, but also the major repertoire as well, Brahms – whom as you know Enescu had known and played under, Mozart, Bach…”
A feeling of joyous celebration was established by violinist Remus Azoitei and pianist Eduard Stan with a confident performance of Brahms’ second sonata for piano and violin. The shortest of Brahms’ three sonatas for these instruments, it has long had the reputation of being the most difficult to bring off in concert due to the equality of the instruments that Brahms intended. Stan matched Azoitei with care in his attention to tonal balance and weight; the inherent qualities of the “Willemotte” Stradivarius violin being obvious yet unobtrusively showcased. The spirit of a vocalise was palpable in Azoitei’s playing, his sense of line and subtle variation of vibrato judiciously applied. This lent added interest to the music, and brought to mind the model of a superlative singer – not a far-fetched association since the sonata’s thematic material draws upon a few of Brahms’ contemporaneously written lieder. The middle movement found a near ideal course in its realisation of Brahms’ sun-dappled dual purpose andante tranquillo and contrasting scherzo. Subtlety of expression was key here, in playing without artifice and awareness so that even the slightest of details can, and should, count for much. The closing movement found the duo focussed on gradually building a strongly articulated structure, yet never bombastic or out of character with the preceding movements. Only occasionally did one feel that some extra heft from Stan’s accompaniment might have been desirable. He brought grandeur of gesture to Brahms writing, but perhaps having the lid open on the short stick served to momentarily constrict the impact of his playing.
Menuhin recorded just one of Enescu’s works, the third sonata for piano and violin, with his sister Heb at the piano. “I could have recorded it with Enescu, of course,” he told me, “but we never found the time […] and I know other works too – the second sonata, Impressions d’enfance, Hora Unirii – but I never felt I could go public with them often. Enescu demands too much, you see”. The third sonata he described as being, “a look into the soul of Romania” as it captures the essential character of folk music in performance, evoking an instinctual fiddler and a host of other instrument timbres within the constraints of sonata form. Azoitei and Stan brought their many years of collaboration in the performance of Enescu’s piano and violin oeuvre to bear in delivering a performance that appeared instinctual in its delivery, but actually made light work in its careful observance of Enescu’s intricately scored writing. Thus, the opening movement, marked Moderato malinconico, succeeded in fusing its form with the transformation of its thematic material, building the drama of its creation as it proceeded. The middle movement could be characterised as the embodiment of a rich tapestry of longing for the distant landscape of rural Romania. Indeed, Alfred Cortot thought it the image of a balmy night under the Romanian sky. Croaking frogs, a mixture of humour and mournful sighs inflected in the manner of a bitter-sweet doina, the gathering of a tempestuous storm and much else was vividly portrayed, as Azoitei and Stan met the many technical demands with panache and confidence of expression. The final movement, a lively rondo in all but name, leapt full of life from the pages on the duo’s music stands. At its culmination the spirit of dance and joyful exuberance rightly bordered on excessive exhilaration, but without the players losing sight of tonal quality or loss of coordination in their phrasing.
Two Enescu pieces were played as encores and both, incidentally, are required semi-final pieces for this year’s Menuhin Competition. The first encore, Impromptu Concertant (1903), is required for the senior competition. At first glance this is a carefree morceau de salon, as would befit a work dating from Enescu’s years of study in Paris. The challenge though is to find cogency in its asymmetrical phrases, melodic intersections and sudden injection of its ecstatic middle section melody. The second encore, Ballade (1895-6), is required for the junior competition. Written in distinctly Brahmsian idiom, it is a fine test piece of any violinist’s ability to project luxuriant tone evenly across wide-arching phrases whilst displaying variety of intonation within the violin’s middle and upper registers. Before playing both encores, Azoitei joked with the audience that although they are a little older, perhaps they would make it to the finals. Suffice to say that Remus Azoitei and Eduard Stan provided object lessons in their understanding and playing of both pieces, having no fear of any competition.