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The Magnetism of Enescu’s art

by Madalina Margaritescu

Described by Yehudi Menuhin as “the Absolute by which I judge all others… the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever experienced” and by legendary cellist Pablo Casals as “one of the greatest geniuses of modern music,” George Enescu exerted his entire life a most unique charm on those who had the joy of listening to him or working with him. The Maestro radiated exceptional energy and communicated in a unique style with both musicians and audience, although – modest as he was and so little aware of the magnetic pull of his interpretive art – he perceived himself as a composer “to the marrow,” with hardly any ease at playing an instrument. A remarkable performing history and numerous testimonies that highly value his art of interpretation disaffirm beyond dispute the great artist’s harsh self-judgment.

Students, stage partners, concert-goers, they all experienced the emotion conveyed by that unmistakable sonority George Enescu drew from any instrument he played, be it the violin, piano, cello, organ, or the viola. Each work he would approach with love, enliven with emotion, and play with simplicity, making a profound impression on the public.

He was only 11 years old when he gave his first concerts – in 1892, in Vienna. He played the Faust Fantasy by Sarasate and achieved resounding success, documented in the journals of the period. The following year, after the Conservatory students’ audition, the daily publication Wiener Tageblatt chronicled the resonance Enescu sparked with his interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Concerto, writing: “He won the hearts of all the listeners. His warm tone, an assurance full of passion, and an equally developed comprehension allow us to anticipate for this wonder-child a brilliant future.”

The simplicity of his interpretation determined his audience or performing partner to focus their attention on the music and to filter out the strictly technical issues. This is not to say that he neglected the technicalities, but for Enescu music did mean experience and life, music had to convey inner states and be much more than an empty string of sounds. The seductive power of Enescu’s art was mentioned, among others, by Philip Hale in The Boston Herald. The chronicler notes his impressions of the concert presented by Enescu with the Boston Symphony Orchestra: “The violin concerto by Brahms has been played here by first-rate musicians, but never with as much musicality, never so seductively one would say, as Enescu did. The music in this concerto, emotional or contemplative, went straight to the listener, with no need to think about the violin, the violinist, or even Brahms. This is the triumph of the art of interpretation.”

Maestro Enescu was not just the brilliant performer who delighted his audience. At the same time, his mere presence exuded calm and self-assurance, inspiring his stage colleagues to play their best. For the latter, that magical power the Maestro exerted on them was an indeed memorable force. Impressed, violinist Mircea Barsan remembered the vibration Enescu shared with fellow music players, highlighting their qualities or correcting their inadequacies, but allowing them freedom in their interpretation – so long as the tone colors were not disturbed. When he felt that his partners faced moments of disquiet, Enescu would discreetly approach them and integrate them, by his magnetic glance, “into his spiritual and artistic atmosphere.” Moments of this kind have remained unforgettable for Alexandru Radulescu, the violinist who played in the string quartet founded and led by George Enescu. The Maestro’s magic had transformed the coalescence of this group into “one soul shared by several hands.” Albeit each musician was absorbed by their instrument, “the cadence, the interior vibration was identical.” The Maestro’s soul flowed into theirs and conferred to each one of them “a superhuman intuition of the musical moment and cadence.” Enescu was “a partner who lent you wings” and would “carry you on the spell of his élan to the highest spheres of music.” The stirring spell would persist in the musicians’ spirit well after the rehearsals had come to an end.

Pianist Monique Haas had worked intensely with Enescu and remembered the Maestro’s eloquence and magnetism: “You were obliged to play as he was asking. You had to command certain musical means that he deemed indispensable. A kind of fluid would engender between yourself and him.”

The energy Enescu radiated was also recounted by composer Aurel Stroe in an interview he gave to musicologist Despina Petel. Aurel Stroe had the fortunate chance to take part in the soirées organized by Enescu in his home and evoked a moment that occurred during one of those evenings, around the beginning of March 1946, before Enescu permanently left the country. It so happened that the composer was seated by Enescu, turning pages for his interpretation of Guillaume Lekeu’s Sonata. It was then that he experienced a sensation he had never had before, nor would he have again. “At one point such an atmosphere was created that I had the distinct impression I was rising with my chair, I had this feeling of levitation which I had never experienced before and haven’t encountered since.”

Musicologist Teodor Balan testifies to a similar event. Sometime in the 40s, while attending a concert at the Romanian Athenaeum where the Maestro was conducting, he noted how the “hunched, distant” musician who had climbed the stairs of the Athenaeum supported by his driver was transfigured into the “unboundedly youthful” conductor to whom “the orchestra was listening as if electrified,” as though “an unseen spirit had helped the Maestro revitalize the tired men.” Another inexplicable phenomenon occurred toward the end of the concert when the orchestra was playing César Franck’s Symphony. The occupants of the first 5-6 rows rose to their feet during the final movement as though an exterior force was pulling them up from their seats. The magnetic pull was fully manifesting itself onto those who were in the vicinity of the Maestro.

Enescu left undying memories in the souls of his audience. Ilie Kogalniceanu recounts, in his Confessions about George Enescu, the memory of the two evenings of 23 and 27 August 1942 when Enescu played his masterpiece Oedipus on the piano. This incomparable episode, which took place at the Villa Luminis in Sinaia, was never to be forgotten by Ilie Kogalniceanu: “Enescu was singing, whistling, groaning – the piano rippling under his hands. I was witnessing something unique, fabulous.”    

Photo: George Enescu photographed by Boris Lipnitzki in Paris, 1936 © Roger-Viollet
  • Bălan, Teodor, ”Acasă la Enescu”, București, Ed. Sport-Turism, 1977;
  • Gavoty, Bernard, Amintirile lui George Enescu / Les Souvenirs de Georges Enesco, trad. Elena Bulai, București, Editura Curtea Veche, 2017;
  • Cosma, Viorel, ”Enescu azi – Premise la redimensionarea personalității și operei”, Timișoara, Ed. Facla, 1981;
  • Kogălniceanu, Ilie, ”Destăinuiri despre George Enescu”,
  • Theodoru Petecel, Despina, ”George Enescu – Reverie și Mit”, București, Ed. Muzicală, 2014;
  • Tudor, Andrei, ”Enescu”, București, Ed. Muzicală, 1958;
  • Vitcu, Dumitru, ”George Enescu în spațiul artistic american”, Iași, Ed. Omnia, 1994.