Symphonie Concertante for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 8 (1901)

By Anthony Burton

Written for the concert Polishing the Jewel: The Genius of George Enescu, performed on Feb 4, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Assez lent – Majestueux

As a performer, George Enescu was endowed with phenomenal gifts, including that of versatility. He was a violinist of international reputation, a pianist of concert level, and a first-rate conductor, not only of his own music. And at the age of about twelve, while studying at the Vienna Conservatoire, he also learned the cello. He must have reached a good standard: in his biography of Enescu, Noel Malcolm relates that, on one of his many tours of the U.S.A., he took part in a string quartet evening in a private house by playing each part in turn.

However, along with Enescu’s undoubted brilliance went a deeply felt distrust of virtuosity for its own sake. It is significant that, although a showpiece with orchestral accompaniment would have been in great demand on his concert tours, he never completed a work for violin and orchestra: an early attempt at a concerto, and much later drafts of a Caprice Roumain and a Sinfonia Concertante, all remained unfinished. So too did two student essays in the medium of the piano concerto.

In fact, his only work for any solo instrument and orchestra is for his third instrument, the cello. It is the Symphonie Concertante, which he composed in Paris in 1901, at around the same time as his two most enduringly popular pieces, the two Romanian Rhapsodies. It met with considerably less success than the Rhapsodies. It was not performed until 1909, when it was played in Paris by its dedicatee, the French cellist Joseph Salmon, with Enescu conducting; and its first performances were failures. It was not published until 1938, and has remained a rarity in the concert hall.

The piece seems originally to have been called simply “Cello Concerto,” but Enescu decided instead to revive the title of Symphonie Concertante, which had been given in the classical period to a multiple concerto. This title does not signify, as it did later in the hands of Walton and Szymanowski, a work in which the soloist plays a kind of obbligato role, sharing material equally with the orchestra: on the contrary, the cello takes the melodic lead almost throughout, mostly in its singing upper register, pausing only rarely for orchestral tuttis. What Enescu must have wanted to indicate is that this is a work of extended, quasi-symphonic thematic development, rather than a lightweight virtuoso concerto in the French tradition of Lalo and Saint-Saëns.

A more appropriate model for a serious cello concerto – though it is not clear whether Enescu could have known it–would have been the great Dvořák, then only six years old. The Symphonie Concertante in fact begins in the same key as the Dvořák Concerto, B minor, and its first melody has a family resemblance to the opening theme of the Dvořák. But it soon acquires a Romanian, rather than Bohemian, lilt; and, whereas Dvořák quickly begins to develop his material and introduce contrasting ideas, Enescu characteristically extends his melody organically into a vast opening paragraph, crowned by a brief orchestral statement.

A little later, while the initial “rather slow” tempo is maintained, the time-signature changes from 4/4 to 3/4 for a second main theme, sung by the solo cello over murmuring string triplets. Another significant theme follows, still in 3/4 but at a slightly faster tempo: its modal inflections and arpeggio accompaniment (initially on pizzicato strings) recall Enescu’s beloved teacher Gabriel Fauré. A scherzo-like section, with brilliant sextuplet figuration for the soloist, leads to the restoration of the opening tempo and 4/4 time: but the cello’s “sweet and dreamy” melody here is related only distantly to the first theme. However, the second and third themes return in recognizable form, though at a higher emotional temperature, before a rare pause.

This heralds the final section of the piece, which can be thought of as an extended coda, or–perhaps more helpfully, since the thematic material is essentially new–a short second movement. The key is B major, and the tempo marking “majestic.” Again there are three main themes: the first a broad, noble melody, introduced for once by the full orchestra without the soloist; the second presented ardently by the cello on its re-entry; the third a more angular idea in the cello’s gruff lower register. Again the movement proceeds less by literal repetition than by a process of continuous melodic expansion, culminating in a genuinely virtuoso passage of repeated eighth-notes, and a brief summatory coda.