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The Eclectic Piano Music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Le stagioni, Op. 33 [11:17]
Sonatina Zoologica, Op. 187 [15:41]
Greetings Cards, Op. 170 [16:50]
Piedigrotta [21:39]
David Witten (piano)
rec. 2016/17, Concert Hall, Drew University, Madison, USA

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco is an underappreciated and neglected composer. His fame rests on his compositions for guitar, especially the ever-popular Concerto, but he also scored over 200 Hollywood films, uncredited in most of them. A pianist of renown, he also composed a lot of piano works of varying character, amongst them some real gems; four discs in my collection offer some wonderful music. This recording shows the influence not only of the earlier generations of Italian composers, but also of Debussy and Ravel, whose music he loved.

This disc opens with Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s take on the seasons. Unlike most works based on the subject, his short suite written in 1924 has five movements, one for each of the seasons and an Epilogue. It opens with a delightful image of Winter. A gentle main theme is quite mournful in character, but shows none of the harshness which the season can deliver. This is followed with a depiction of Spring that contains a rippling motif; it reminds one of April showers and the path of raindrops down the windowpane. Summer is the most boisterous of the four seasons in this depiction. David Witten suggests in his excellent booklet notes that this could be an allusion to the glare of the hot Italian sun, and then states that the composer’s use of ostinato in the left hand is reminiscent of that used in the Pines of Rome by Respighi, an influence on his music. Autumn begins with a beautifully lilting melody which is almost like the gentle ebb and flow of the waves upon a beach. The work concludes with the Epilogue, which is in reality like an overture, as it introduces themes from each of the Seasons. However, it has an overt sense of sadness, perhaps at the passing of time. In the time signature of Con malinconia (quasi recitativo) Castelnuovo-Tedesco points to the overall effect. The repeat of the theme from Winter at the end of the movement is to be played “a little more tired”.

The Sonatina Zoologica, the latest work on the disc, inspired by Ravel’s Histoires naturelles, was composed in 1960, some thirty four years after Le stagioni. It was partly the result of a long-held promise to his publisher to write companion pieces to his Lucertolina, which he had composed in 1916 (published 1937), and of a discussion with the dedicatee, the pianist Ornella Puliti-Santoliquido. In a discussion with the composer, she stated her desire to record a disc of music relating to animals. As a result, Castelnuovo-Tedesco resurrected his earlier piece and composed three other accompanying pieces. The Sonatina opens with Libellule. It begins with a scuttling of the dragonflies before moving into a graceful main theme depicting them in flight. This is followed by a Chiocciola, quite lugubrious in its depiction of the snail. The third movement presents the original piece from 1916; the depiction of the Little Lizard is a “curious atonal/polyrhythmic mix that was quite bold for its time”. The concluding rondo entitled Formiche is a depiction of the ever-bust ants, as they scurry around the garden continually working hard.

Greeting Cards was a series of some fifty-one pieces composed during the final fifteen years of the composer’s life, many of which still remain to be published. These short pieces are in effect musical depictions of his friends and colleagues, with clues to their name and nature in the music. They were composed for various instruments, seventeen of them for the piano, of which three are included here. They contain a kind of musical cryptogram with each letter of the alphabet given a specific note; an example is included in the booklet notes. The three that are included here are sincere portraits of Walter Gieseking, André Previn, a student of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and the musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky. The music contains allusions to Debussy and Ravel, composers of whose music Gieseking was a renowned performer. The Tango depicts Previn’s affinity with both jazz and classical piano. The depiction of Slonimsky concludes with a fugue.

The final work on this disc is Piedigrotta 1924: Rapsodia Napoletana, composed during the composer’s honeymoon in Naples after he had married Clara Forti, to whom the work is dedicated. The Rhapsody is in reality a suite of five movements depicting the events of the religious festivities that the couple observed whilst there, and also contains some references to popular songs sung during the festival. The work opens with a powerful Tarantella scura (Dark Tarantella) with its frenetic dance-like rhythm. It gives way to a much more sedate, nocturne-like Night of Moonlight. The central movement entitled Calasciunate refers to the popular Naples tradition of lute songs. The themes of the movement are based on some of these tunes. Another of these tunes is the basis for the lilting fourth movement. Its main theme is based upon the Fenesta che lucive or the Light in the Window. It is a folk song about a man’s love for a young woman; when he comes to see her, he finds that she has died. With the final movement Lariulà! we return to the festival and to the parade. Here once again popular song tunes are included. Castelnuovo-Tedesco even adds a cyclical element with a brief return to the music of the Tarantella scura. This wonderful piece shows how the composer was open to the inclusion of the popular idiom in his own music.

This is a really enjoyable disc, aided by David Witten’s pianism and scholarship, whose playing is excellent. The nuanced and colourful performance brings out the best from this music. This has led me to listen to this disc many times. Witten is also a professor of music, and this comes out in his scholarly and excellent booklet essay, delivered in an informative and interesting manner. A must for all devotees of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music.

Stuart Sillitoe

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