Thursday 22 June 2023

One of the towering masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire: violinist Simon Blendis introduces Enescu's Octet

Simon Blendis
Simon Blendis
As the Guildhall School prepares for its Chamber Music Festival, Simon Blendis, professor of violin at the Guildhall School, introduces George Enescu's Octet which features in the festival.

Each year Guildhall School of Music & Drama hosts a wonderful Chamber Music Festival in which groups are formed from a mixture of postgraduate students and teaching professors, giving students the opportunity to work alongside experienced chamber musicians and showcasing some of the great talent in the school. As a Professor of Violin at Guildhall School, this year I’m particularly excited to be performing one of the towering masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire, Enescu’s magnificent Octet, together with three other string professors and four students (on Sunday 9 July 2023).

Enescu was one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th Century, and yet somehow he has never been embraced by the mainstream, his name and his music usually pushed towards the rather specialised margins. Perhaps his problem was to have excelled at too many things - as a performer he was one of the world’s leading violinists (he was Menuhin’s teacher and mentor) as well as being a useful pianist and cellist. At the same time, he was a renowned conductor, a famous teacher, and of course the greatest composer Romania has produced. 

In his early works such as this Octet (written when he was just 18), one can hear influences of the music he was surrounded by, such as Debussy, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Chausson and Franck, but his own thumbprints are already easy to hear, such as his individual approach to tonality and modality, and the integration of Romanian folk music into his language. 

Although structurally the Octet is very complex, in fact the listening experience is surprisingly straightforward, thanks largely to the huge paragraphs of almost endless melody that comprise the work. The influence of Romanian folk music is never far away, and subtly reveals itself both melodically and harmonically in various ways. Some of the themes are clearly derived from the folk tradition, in particular those in the first movement, played by the first violin alone, that sound like a folk fiddler gently improvising. Within the themes, there are frequent modal inflections, such as flattened seconds and sevenths of the scale, that give a strong folky flavour, and these modal inflections also find their way into the harmonies. In particular, Enescu enjoys blurring the distinction between major and minor, so that sometimes within the same tune we find both major and minor chords in quick succession, turning us this way and that and leaving a strangely suspended, equivocal feel to the modality that is extremely beautiful.

The Octet is also notable for Enescu’s distinctive orchestration, moving from extreme simplicity in the opening (where seven of the eight players all play the theme together in unison) to moments of the most extreme complexity, with dazzling counterpoint that are a real test for any ensemble. One of the main challenges in learning this piece for the first time is to piece together the many layers of complicated music – each part is quite virtuoso in its own right, but then to fit that together with seven similarly complex parts and add to that the ever-changing tempos, creates a test that’s unlike any other in the chamber music repertoire.

But this complexity is rarely apparent to the listener - the overall sound of the work is rich and sumptuous, with gorgeous textures and soaring melodies. Not one to hold back in any way, Enescu explores extremes of every parameter, from delicate pianissimos to searing fortissimos, and moments of great stillness to passages of dizzying speed (the climax of the second movement reaches a metronome mark of minim = 200 beats per minute!). It reaches moments of visceral excitement that really make the heart race. Playing this piece is a special treat for any musician – it doesn’t happen very often, because the sheer complexity and difficulty of the writing means a lot of rehearsal is needed, so the opportunity to include it in this year’s Festival is one that we have grabbed with both hands. 

As it’s a relatively little-known piece, and listening to it can be greatly enhanced with a little prior exposure, we are giving a short, free talk/demonstration before the concert on Sunday 9 July to unpack the piece and show what’s going on under the hood. It’s a chance to hear some of the many wonderful melodies in isolation and see how Enescu ingeniously splices them all together. We hope people will come to this and that it increases their enjoyment of this masterpiece when we perform it later that afternoon in the excellent acoustics of the School’s Milton Court Concert Hall. It is a unique work by an underrated and special voice whose music deserves a wider audience.

Guildhall School’s Chamber Music Festival returns for a weekend of inspiring performances from 7-9 July 2023 at various venues. Three days of events include special performances from professors and students, illustrated lectures and masterclasses. More information can be found at the Guildhall School website

Simon Blendis gives an illustrated talk/demonstration on Sunday 9 July at 1pm in Silk Street Lecture Recital Room
Enescu's Octet is performed on Sunday 9 July at 2.30pm at Milton Court Concert Hall

Simon Blendis

Simon Blendis enjoys a varied career as a chamber musician, soloist and orchestral leader. He was the violinist with the Schubert Ensemble for 23 years, from 1995 until it finished in 2018. With the Ensemble, he performed over 1000 concerts in over thirty different countries, recorded over twenty CDs, made frequent broadcasts for BBC Radio 3, and created an extensive library of live performances on YouTube which is still available.

Simon has been leader of the London Mozart Players (LMP) since 2014 and is in constant demand as a guest leader, having led most of the major symphony and chamber orchestras in this country. He regularly directs the LMP from the violin, and has guest-directed the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the English Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Ensemble. He has also shared the position of first concertmaster with Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa in Japan since 1999, with whom he has recorded Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the Warner Japan label.

In July 2022 Simon and his pianist wife, Saoko, released a CD of rediscovered salon treasures from the Max Jaffa archive. Called Love is like a Violin, it has already attracted over 3 million streams.

Since 2018, Simon has been a professor of violin at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month