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Mario CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895-1968)
Complete Music for Two Guitars - Volume 2
Fuga elegiaca [4:33]
The Well-Tempered Guitars, 24 Preludes and Fugues for two guitars Op.199 Nos. 13 - 24 [49:43]
Brasil Guitar Duo (João Luiz and Douglas Lora)
rec. St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, 27-30 June 2007
NAXOS 8.570779 [54:16]
Experience Classicsonline

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 Op.199 represents not only one of the composer’s finest works for the medium but also one of the greatest of all pieces written for guitar duo.

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 (5 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 to Vltava in Fugue 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 elegiaca 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 refinement.

Music of refinement and beauty performed with enormous technical sophistication and musical taste.

Nick Barnard

 


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