Mario CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895-1968)
Concerto No.2 for Violin and Orchestra Op.66 ‘I profeti’ (1933) [31:10]
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Concerto Gregoriano for Violin and Orchestra P.135 (1922) [33:37]
Carlos GUASTAVINO (1912-2000)
La rosa y el sauce - transcription for Violin and Orchestra by José Miguel Cueto [4:42]
José Miguel Cueto (violin)
The St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Lande
rec. Melodia Studio, Church of St. Katherine, St Petersburg, Russia, January 2008
MARQUIS CLASSICS 81407 [69:29]
 
This is one of those discs you want to like; intelligently programmed, interesting repertoire, pretty good running time with a novelty thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, while by no means bad I am not sure the performances here justify the full-price tag. The coupling of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 2nd Violin Concerto of 1933 with Respighi’s Concerto Gregoriano from 1922 is both unique and very interesting. Both Italian composers sought to create a body of non-vocal Italian concert music in the 20th Century and both were fascinated by different aspects of their cultural past. So this results in a fascinating compare and contrast of two superficially similar yet ultimately very different works. The Castelnuovo-Tedesco concerto is subtitled “I Profeti” [the Prophets] and is the consequence of yet another commission from Jascha Heifetz. Indeed a cursory scan of the catalogue would seem to imply that the original Heifetz recording is the only other version (Naxos) currently available although Perlman’s version is on EMI Arkiv. The circumstances of the work’s premiere - in New York under Toscanini is symptomatic of one of the major differences between the two composers; Castelnuovo-Tedesco being of Jewish birth having to flee from Italian anti-Semitism whilst Respighi’s career certainly did not suffer under fascist rule.

Both concertos are flavoured with modal-archaisms and both make severe demands on the soloist alternating virtuosic pyrotechnics with high-flying passages of ecstatic lyricism. To my ear Respighi is considerably more successful at integrating the disparate moods and musical styles than his compatriot. Apparently the premiere of the Concerto Gregoriano was coolly received which disappointed the composer greatly who considered it one of his finest works. For those who know him via the technicolor Roman Triptych the restrained beauty of this work will come as something of a surprise but I do not think I am alone in considering this the finest of all his purely orchestral works. The first two movements are in effect an extended meditation weaving together modal themes drawn from Gregorian Chants with nature painting that evokes the Italian countryside at its most benignly beautiful. Nancy Roldán’s liner-note captures the essence of it well; “.. the concerto embodies peace and spirituality, conveyed through Gregorian Chants, open harmonies and pristine orchestration”. She goes on to quote Respighi’s wife who wrote in his biography that the composer said, “how wonderful it would be to recast those magnificent melodies [plain-chant] in a new language of sounds, free from the rigidly formal Catholic Liturgy…. and revive the indestructible germ of real human values contained therein.” In the central Andante espressivo e sostenuto the soloist here - José Miguel Cueto - is at his finest spinning long lyrical lines of considerable beauty. The problems lie in the surrounding movements and indeed pretty much throughout the more overtly gymnastic Castelnuovo-Tedesco concerto. Here, although he clearly possesses a considerable technique it is just a fraction short of that needed to overcome the hurdles placed in his way. It makes one realise just how much for granted we take total technical command these days. He is not helped by the accompaniment of the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra which again is not poor but rarely better than routine. The engineering of the disc is perfectly good - the soloist balanced in front of the orchestra. The detail of the scoring is audible but the fact remains that this is an ensemble lacking international class in terms of precision or tonal weight or soloistic character. The close of the Respighi simply does not blaze with sense of fervent joy it should. Although by no means popular on CD the Respighi has received several recordings - Mordkovitch on Chandos with the BBC PO under Sir Edward Downes and Amoyal on Decca with the Orchestre National de France and Dutoit - leaping out of the catalogue as being the ‘big hitters’. The version I know is the hugely impressive and poised Andrea Cappelleti accompanied by The Philharmonia and Matthias Bamert. Cappelletti’s coupling is another Respighi concerto; the faux-baroque Concerto all’antica which is a gem. Compared to that performance Cueto is simply too effortful too often.
 
The temptation remains in obtaining a modern version of the other main work. Here, again there are audible fault-lines in the playing but the bigger issue is the fundamental ‘worth’ of the music itself. The composer drew on the Old Testament for inspiration as well as integrating fragments of traditional Jewish melodies into the framework of the piece. Somehow though he does not manage to achieve as seamless or individual an absorption of this authentic source material as Respighi. To my ear the music stays resolutely archaic in the heroic style of biblical-epic film scores. There are moments that summon up memories of Bloch’s Schelomo without ever quite matching that work’s raging lamentations. I have not heard Heifetz’s recording to know what more - if anything - can be mined from the work. My abiding impression is of music that is longer on effect than profundity - the exact opposite of the Respighi in fact. The disc is completed - rather unnecessarily really - with a transcription by the soloist for violin and orchestra of Argentinean composer Carlos Guastavino’s song La rosa y el sauce [the rose and the willow]. Quite what this has to do with the two main works is unclear - I can only think there was some studio time left at the end of the sessions.
 
Ultimately a disc of great potential that only fitfully delivers. The Respighi is a work demanding to be heard and it can be to better effect elsewhere. The Castelnuovo-Tesdesco work has yet to have a convincing case made for itself.
 
Nick Barnard 
Ultimately a disc of great potential that only fitfully delivers.