Once in a while it is really nice to receive a disc to review
about which one has no prior knowledge or expectations. All too
often you can find yourself burdened by a series of preconceptions
and performance practice that simply gets in the way of one’s
ability to enjoy a composition and a performance in its own right.
This disc, the second volume in the Naxos series dedicated to
the two-guitar music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, is just such a CD.
I cannot profess any insightful knowledge about the classical
guitar or its repertoire so instead this review is very much
an “innocent ear”.
It is always something of a surprise to remember that Castelnuovo-Tedesco
is a 19th
century-born Italian composer. It was a
meeting with Andrés Segovia in 1932 that ultimately led
him to write over one hundred works for guitar. Of those, the
liner-notes tell us that the 1962 cycle The Well-Tempered
Guitars, 24 Preludes and Fugues for two guitars
not only one of the composer’s finest works for the medium
but also one of the greatest of all pieces written for guitar
This disc completes the cycle started on Naxos 8.570778 with
Preludes and Fugues 13 -24. Due to very careful dating on the
manuscripts we know that these pieces were all written during
a period of intense creativity between 14 May and 3 June 1962
- some fifty minutes of music composed in little more than two
weeks. Perhaps this reflects the compositional discipline he
learnt as a Fascist refugee film music composer in California
between 1940 and 1956.
Clearly there is an intentional homage here to Bach’s famous
keyboard cycle of a similar name. Our modern sense of ‘well-tempered’ is
wholly different from the baroque one. Today we divide the octave
into 12 exactly equal (or “well-tempered”) intervals.
Theoretically this means that all keys sound equally “well” with
the same tuning - something Bach’s cycle was designed to
show off. Castelnuovo-Tedesco follows the so-called “cycle
of fifths” in his sequence of keys. This means that each
paired Prelude and Fugue is in a key a musical 5th
musical letter names taking the starting pitch as “1”)
higher than the preceding piece. After 12 steps you return to
the starting key having covered all 12 semitones of the scale.
To make a full set of 24 preludes and fugues the process is then
repeated substituting a major key for minor and vice versa. Other
composers, notably Shostakovich, have taken the Bachian model
to write their own cycles. It would be quite wrong to suggest
that these guitar duets strive for the same kind of monumental
significance as the Shostakovich because they do not try to.
I’m sure that Graham Wade in his liner-notes is quite right
to say that they are in effect a much more personal musical diary
recording the composer’s moods and emotions over an intense
but short period of time.
I have to say that I personally do not find Castelnuovo-Tedesco
to be the most melodically individual of composers. Curiously,
there are several occasions when melodic outlines seems to copy
well-known melodies ranging from “I’ve got plenty
of nuttin” in Prelude No.14 in D minor
No.20 in G# minor.
Clearly this is purely coincidental but
each time I played the disc I did the same double-take. I’m
sure that greater familiarity with his style allows a listener
to recognise individual compositional traits but I find it quite
hard to characterise the emotional range of these pieces - it
is wide but within a limited sphere. I understand that reads
as a contradiction in terms but by that I mean that a full gamut
of tempi, dynamics and musical emotion is explored but within
the defining limitations of the overlying style of the music.
For sure these pieces will repay close and detailed listening
but at the same time they can be enjoyed in a much more relaxed
and superficial way too. They are exquisitely played by the Brasil
Guitar Duo. Their ensemble, tuning, and total immersion in this
sound-world is exemplary. You simply do not hear this as two
instruments - listen to the intricate interplay of Prelude
No.16 in E minor
(track 9) - this is far harder to bring
off than the Brasil Duo make it sound. They seem totally at ease
with the water-colour miniaturist world of this music too - the Prelude
No.18 in F# minor
(track 13) is a perfect example. Every
subtle nuance is carefully etched and all have been recorded
in the naturally warm acoustic of St. John Chrysostom Ontario
that Naxos use for so many of their chamber music recordings.
The disc closes with the brief four and a half minute Fuga
which occupies a very similar spiritual world to
the main work. This makes for a reasonably modestly filled CD
but one that fulfils its remit to perfection. For those who already
own volume 1 there will be no hesitation and for those who don’t
this would seem to be an ideal introduction to the elegant and
graceful sound-world of this composer. I can’t claim a Damascene
conversion to the cause of two guitar music but I have enjoyed
greatly the chance to sample music-making and composition of such
Music of refinement and beauty performed with enormous technical
sophistication and musical taste.