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Mario CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895-1958)
Evangélion (1947) [71.51]
Alessandro Marangoni (piano)
rec. Baroque Hall, SMC Records, Ivrea, Italy, 9-10 December 2013
NAXOS 8.573316 [71.51]

For many years Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was known primarily and almost exclusively for his music for guitar. This includes a concerto that has established itself as one of the best-known examples of its type. More recently Naxos has been undertaking sterling work in bringing his other music to our attention. I would mention the fascinating pair of CDs including the composer’s set of overtures — in the nature of symphonic poems — on Shakespeare plays (review). There's also another disc where Alessandro Marangoni gave us the composer’s two piano concertos (review). Some years ago the Second Violin Concerto The Prophets (1934) was recorded by Heifetz and later by Perlman.

Here we are given the first ever complete recording of his cycle of twenty-eight piano pieces entitled Evangélion, subtitled “the story of Jesus, narrated to the children in 28 little pieces”. The pieces are divided into four sections, entitled The Infancy, The Life, The Words and The Passion. None of them are more than four minutes in duration, and five clock in at under two. They are not therefore full explorations of the incidents they portray but depictions of or meditations on individual episodes in the life of Christ.

The booklet notes by Graham Wade give us full textual references to the relevant passages in the Gospels which inspired Castelnuovo-Tedesco. This will be of great assistance to those unfamiliar with the New Testament or for those (like myself) who need reminding precisely who the Woman of Samaria (track 11) was, and where she fits into the story. The brevity of the individual ‘narrations’ is compared by Graham Wade to the portraits included in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, although the work as a whole is around twice the length of the Russian masterpiece. It does however highlight the difficulty experienced by a composer in varying the textures over such a protracted period. There are certainly places here where the music seems positively to invite orchestral treatment – as in the fanfare-inspired passages which opens The massacre of the innocents (track 4) which screams out for brassily muted trumpets. Indeed, as in the case of Mussorgsky, one could envisage any number of different instrumental arrangements.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco makes some cross-references between movements – for example the Massacre of the innocents fanfare mentioned in the previous paragraph returns as a distant reminiscence during the following The flight into Egypt. Otherwise the composer avoids the use of recurring themes to bind the whole extended work together. This throws a great deal of weight onto the melodic material of the individual movements. These are not always successful although some pieces – such as Jesus and the money changers (track 14) or The entrance into Jerusalem (track 22) – are thoroughly characteristic. Towards the end of the final section the movements are generally rather longer — four of the six movements over three minutes in length are to be found here. This allows for a greater development than is possible in the earlier pieces, many of them in ternary form. Indeed this final section depicting The Passion is the most satisfactory part of the whole, although Castelnuovo-Tedesco terminates his cycle with The Resurrection without any treatment of the Ascension part of the gospel. This leads to a rather abrupt conclusion.

It is however most valuable to be able to experience the cycle as a whole and there is a great deal to enjoy here. The music sometimes has a deliberately antique flavour which reminded me somewhat of Respighi’s Adoration of the Magi from the Three Botticelli Pictures, although there do not appear to be any direct quotations of Gregorian chant. Alessandro Marangoni is an excellent pianist, as we have already gathered from his recording of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco piano concertos. Although there are some real barnstorming movements to be found here nothing seems to cause him concern. He also phrases the more meditative pieces which form the majority of the cycle with delicacy and charm. The recorded sound – with plenty of resonance around the instrument – is eminently satisfactory.

For some reason the dates of birth and death given for the composer on the back cover of the CD are given incorrectly, although they are accurate in the insert booklet. The dates on the back cover appear to be those for Alfredo Catalani, who presumably was adjacent on the index of names employed. It happens to the best of us.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey