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Mario CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895 – 1968)
Concerto Italiano for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 31 (1924) [31:38]
Violin Concerto No. 2 I Profeti, Op. 66 (1931) [31:27]
Tianwa Yang (violin)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg/Pieter-Jelle de Boer
rec. Rolf Böhme Saal, Konzerthaus, Freiburg, Germany, 2012
NAXOS 8.573135 [63:05]

Italy was long the land of opera and pure instrumental and orchestral music lead a languishing life. This changed somewhat with the late-romantics, headed by Martucci and at the beginning of the twentieth century “the generation of the 1880s” (Pizzetti, Casella, Respighi and Malipiero) created quite a deluge of valuable concert works.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, though only a decade or so younger, belonged to the next generation. He wrote initially a lot of vocal music and also essayed, less successfully, opera. However it was as a composer of ballet that he made his mark. He was lucky in making contact with important interpreters, most essentially Andrés Segovia, for whom he wrote more than one hundred guitar pieces. He was Jewish but was little affected by the growing anti-Semitism until in 1938 Mussolini “started to ape Adolf Hitler’s Nazi nastiness”. This led to performances of his works being cancelled and in 1939 he took his family to New York. From 1940 he lived in California and until 1956 wrote film scores — according to one source as many as 250. In this capacity he became very influential and among his followers can be mentioned Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, André Previn, Jerry Goldsmith, Marty Paich and John Williams. In 1946 he became an American citizen and there were frequent visits to Italy.

The Concerto Italiano was his first symphonic work of any significance. It was commissioned in 1924 by the famous violinist Mario Corti, who had played some of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s short pieces and now wanted a ‘very modern’ concerto. It turned out, however, that Castelnuovo-Tedesco had instead gone back to the Italian seventeenth and eighteenth century music as a source of inspiration. The composer himself described the opening of the work as ‘almost Vivaldian’. It is elegant, melodious and moderately modern. With hindsight the beautiful second theme, played by the trumpet, could be seen as a preliminary study for his film music, even though that period was still more than fifteen years in the future. Rhythmically attractive and with plenty of opportunities for the soloist to display her technical brilliance, this is a work that should win a lot of admirers in the concert hall. It is surprising that this should be a world premiere recording. The finale of the first movement is riveting. It's not a particularly deep work but is musicianly and entertaining. In the second movement, Arioso, the solo violin weaves beautiful arabesques against a sometimes static background.

The second concerto was written for Jascha Heifetz. The two had met in Florence in 1926 and Heifetz performed the Concerto Italiano with the New York Phil at the Metropolitan Opera House in January 1931. The outcome of this was that Heifetz requested a new concerto specifically for him.

This time Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who was in a period of ‘deep religious sentiment’, based the work on five traditional Jewish melodies from a collection published in Florence in 1891, which the composer had found in his father’s bookcase. This is a more serious work than the Italian, which is obvious from the opening Grave e meditative. The orchestration is fuller, with more emphasis on the wind instruments, and the music has more weight. In spite of this there is room for some virtuoso fiddling in the Allegro appassionato part of the movement. The second movement, Espressivo e dolente, is noble and elevated while the finale is quite exhilarating and offers the soloist scope for virtuoso exuberance. But the serious elements predominate and add substance to a work that is more mature than its predecessor; this in spite of the end of the finale being rather cinematic in a bombastic way. It was premiered at Carnegie Hall in April 1933 with Heifetz, Toscanini and the New York Phil. Heifetz later declared that he liked the concerto a lot and that he regretted that he seemed to be the only one to play it. Fortunately he was able to record it commercially (see review), possibly because of the cinematographic atmosphere, and thus it reached a far wider range of audiences.

I am happy to report that the present disc should win the work, indeed both works, new admirers. The 2012 recording from the Konzerthaus in Freiburg leaves little to be wished of clarity and dynamics. The orchestra is not in the Berlin Philharmonic class, but Naxos have a nose for finding orchestras from the ‘provinces’ – nothing condescending in the choice of word: provinces as opposed to the prestigious metropolitan areas – and there is first-class playing in all departments. The young Dutch conductor Pieter-Jelle de Boer is also an accomplished pianist and composer and he has a fine ear for the sonorities of this music. The Beijing born soloist Tianwa Yang quickly rose to stardom when she as the youngest violinist ever recorded Paganini’s 24 caprices at the age of 13 in 2000. Since 2004 she has recorded extensively for Naxos, to great critical acclaim, including a series of discs with music by Pablo de Sarasate (review ~ review). While not being a ‘new’ Jascha Heifetz – there will never be one, every great musician is unique – she has all the qualities that make a great musician. Her playing here is enough bait for acquiring this disc, but an even stronger lure is the opportunity to have both the Castelnuovo-Tedesco concertos. The second one I Profeti, is no doubt the greater work but Concerto Italiano is not negligible either, and at the usual Naxos price you do yourself a disservice if you don’t buy it.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey



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