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Nathan Cole

Composer's intentions: Enescu 3rd Sonata

December 2, 2012 at 6:44 PM

Enescu 1st page

I just received a video from the Mimir Festival, of my performance this past July of Enescu's 3rd violin sonata with Alessio Bax. It was fun (but as always, scary) to see a performance as it really happened, as opposed to the memory that I've been carrying around for a few months. Especially when I only get one shot at a performance (i.e. not part of a series or tour), there's a strange mix of pressure and freedom. Pressure since I only have one chance at each bar, but freedom because I might as well go for broke: this is it! You can see the video on YouTube, so here's the first of three movements:

This got me thinking about something else though. Check out that first page of the violin part! Is that music or some kind of secret code? In addition to the "normal" dynamics, we've got bf and pf and some variations; special glissando markings; tons of fingerings; plenty of non vibrato and molto vibrato. That's a lot to process! Enescu did this because he wanted to translate a certain style of violin playing into readable music. Judging from his own performance of the work:

he did a great job! I would never have been able to play in this style without his instructions, at least not without putting an enormous effort into studying that musical tradition. So the obvious question is: am I really playing in that style? And what is "that style"? Is it "Romanian style", as Enescu says on the title page? Or is it really Enescu style?

I certainly can't claim to know the Romanian style, whatever that may be, after studying and playing this piece. But I have played close to a hundred Beethoven pieces. I consider myself well versed in his style! Yet I've often wondered, as millions of people before me have, what Beethoven's personal style might have been. How many times did our student string quartets at Curtis say, "If only Beethoven were here right now!" It was always amusing to me to read that the Guarneri Quartet said the same kind of thing in exasperation. We assumed that his presence would have been a comfort: he would simply explain what he meant by dots, wedges, or a certain "p": was it a crescendo up to, or past, piano?

But what if his presence instead became a nuisance? A distraction? What if, given the chance, he decided to "re-edit" his works along the lines of the Enescu? He might mark some or most of a piece non-vibrato, for example, according to the style of the time. Quartets would forever be locked into his choices! He might mark glissandi, many more than I'm used to playing in his music. He might change half notes into double-dotted quarters with sixteenth rests, to show that he really wanted space in between! Imagine a page of Beethoven, so powerful in its simplicity, marked up like the Enescu. Would that free us to concentrate on interpretation, now that all our problems had been solved? Or would we feel that there wasn't much left to interpret?

None of this is meant to detract from the brilliance of Enescu or this 3rd sonata. This piece could only have been written by a composer of deep musical conviction. And his own performance has a wonderful freedom that sounds not at all constrained by any markings he put into his violin part. In fact, the more I played this sonata, the freer I felt, as if the markings were only logical musical and expressive choices that I had come up with! I even found myself playing with expressive devices that were not in the part, because they "felt" good. When I discovered the discrepancy, I often thought, "would it really be so bad to change that? It sounds great!" Of course that's exactly what quartets struggle with all the time playing Beethoven.

And let's not forget that those markings in the Enescu were, for me, a window onto a new style of playing, one that I would not have fallen into naturally. Perhaps that was the composer's intent all along: once the performer gains wisdom and insight through the specific instructions, he's free to "interpret" once more, and keep only what he likes. Or, like Ysaye, he might have written the notes, markings, and fingerings as a whole. Ysaye cautioned violinists not to change his marked fingerings in the unaccompanied sonatas, as they would alter the sound and effect of his music!

By far, most composers I've worked with personally have been eager to change anything they thought would make for a more effective performance. They've been especially quick to take the suggestions of performers. But few of these composers have been virtuoso performers, and that's what makes this Enescu case so interesting. I'll have to revisit the question the next time I'm fortunate enough to play the piece. And I'll certainly be thinking about it this afternoon when we play Beethoven's 2nd Symphony at the LA Phil!

From Corwin Slack
Posted on December 3, 2012 at 5:52 PM
This is a very well done and intelligent blog. It is bold of you to post your excellent performance next to the composer's.

I would say that the most fundamental difference between you and the composer is your concept of tone production.

From Adrian Demian
Posted on December 5, 2012 at 1:34 PM
As a Romanian and as a violinist who, myself, played this sonata quite a few times, I had to write to congratulate you for the beautiful performance of this neglected masterpiece of the twentieth century!
Over the years, I came to view the multitude of signs in both this sonata and the later "Impressions from Childhood" as an invaluable masterclass opportunity with the great musician. Once we do everything is asked of us, it still is our job as musicians to process this information, "digest' it, make it our own, alter it to suit our own personality. During the learning stages, we become Enescu's students and, the more we abide by his recommendations, the more we have to gain. Nevertheless, in the end, as we become able to feel and perform the piece as a whole, I believe we have the freedom to put our own mark, to somehow alter what is on the page in order to be able to convey its message most convincingly.
Enescu, unlike Bartok, was not interested in collecting folklore. His "Romanian Style" is really his own; sounds he grew up with, sifted through the filters of his own personality. In this respect, I find his third sonata to be a very personal thing, an excursion into Enescu's innermost memories and feelings. We are not learning about a Romanian style per se, but help tell Enescu's story as a Romanian composer who left the country when he was very young (at seven years old).
Along these lines, Enescu wrote this sonata outside a mainstream tradition while Beethoven was working within the traditions and conventions of his time. Thus, the first had to give us some clues to help us decode his message while the second did not need such aids since everybody was familiar to the time's performance practices. There are so many treatises we can consult today in search of that "original" feel in Beethoven's works, but we only have the score notations to help us with Enescu's third sonata - and I think the same goes for Ysaye's solo sonatas to a certain extent.
I felt the same freedom you mention growing as I was getting deeper and deeper into Enescu's sonata. Indeed, everything he asks is natural and makes perfect sense. All the markings should not deter us from playing more such music coming straight from the soul of one of the gentlest of geniuses. He would smile if we changed some of these markings in order to make the music our own, the way he smiled when a 9 years old Ginette Neveu replied to him that she plays the music as she understands it, not as he does.

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