A few weeks ago I was watching the first of Michael Portillos “Great Continental Train Journeys” and in that episode he was travelling through Romania.
Armed with his trusty 1913 Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide, Michael Portillo ventures east through Romania to the shores of the Black Sea. Along the way he encounters a bloodsucking vampire in Transylvania and brown bears in the Carpathian forest, before visiting a fairytale castle with modern conveniences in Sinaia, striking oil in Ploiesti, tapping into the nation’s musical soul in Bucharest and loading cargo from a crane in Constanta. This leg of his journey ends at Constanta, where he explores what is now emerging as Europe’s largest grain port.
The scenery in the country was breathtaking and sort of dispelled the stereotypical idea that the country is one of abject poverty in a very grey land.
It was whilst exploring the musical heritage of the country that I heard a piece of music playing in the background and thought “I know that” and I vaguely remember buying a CD* with it on many years ago. It turned out to be George Enescus “Romanian Rhapsody No 2” and I had forgotten what a lovely piece of music it is.
George Enescu (1881 – 1955) is considered the most important Romanian musician. He was a composer, a violinist, a teacher, a pianist and a conductor, a complex and brilliant artistic personality. He began playing the violin at the age of 4, receiving musical guidance from his parents and from a famous traditional singer, Niculae Chioru. At the age of 5-6, he had already begun to compose. He started the professional study of music under the guidance of professor Eduard Caudella.
Between 1888 and 1894, he studied at the Music Conservatory in Vienna, with Joseph Hellmesberger jr. (violin) and Robert Fuchs (composition), among others. At only 8 years old, he has his first public appearance as a violinist.
After graduating from the Music Conservatory in Vienna, he continued his studies at the Music Conservatory in Paris (1895-1899), under the guidance of Martin Pierre Marsick (violin), André Gédalge (contrapunctum) and Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré (composition).
Among his colleagues in Paris, we mention Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Charles Koechlin and Theodor Fuchs.His debute as a composer took place on the 6th of February 1898, at the Colonne Concerts, in Paris, with the musical work “Romanian Poem” op.1. The musician appeared in exceptional conditions, due to the exquisite protection of Elena Bibescu.
His two Romanian rhapsodies have become his best known works but he still remains a neglected figure in the concert halls of the world. In an attempt to remedy this a little I am posting an excerpt from my favourite piece, Romanian Rhapsody No 2 played by the Berlin Staatskapelle under Daniel Barenboim. Unfortunately the full piece has not been put on YouTube but you can seek out other performances by various orchestras however, they are not as well recorded as this excerpt.
Give it a listen, I will guarantee you will not be disappointed, then go on to listen to the whole piece and explore Enescus other compositions.
So thank you Michael Portillo for reminding me what a wonderful piece of music this is.
*Rhapsody No 2 – George Enescu Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christian Mandeal (Arte Nova Classics)