, October 2004
"When fellow émigré, Ernst Toch presented the manuscript of his Op. 35 Cello Concerto to Castelnuovo-Tedesco in 1948 the Italian-born composer reciprocated with the score of his Naomi and Ruth. Toch referred to this ten minute work as "one of the purest and most touching compositions you have ever written".
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco had been making his way in the world of Hollywood film music after racism poisoned the air in his homeland. He worked happily in various capacities on the scores of some 200 films. He had some of the right connections. Jascha Heifetz, was also basking in the perpetual sunshine. Mario had written his Second Violin Concerto I Profeti for Heifetz in 1931. This work which I recall as being in a demonstrative rather over-heated style (paralleling the Achron First Concerto of 1925) was recorded by Heifetz for RCA.
Both Erich Korngold and Franz Waxman had found Hollywood their salvation and their curse. Both continued to produce concert works alongside the remunerative film scores. Waxman, like Castelnuovo-Tedesco, also produced pieces with biblical themes. A natural if hardly inexpensive candidate for a premiere recording project is Waxmans cantata for soli, chorus and orchestra: Joshua. Castelnuovo-Tedescos Naomi and Ruth is a more modest yet masterly score. There is no Jewish accent to this music at least none in the sense we hear in the sway and ululation of the Bloch and Achron violin concertos. In fact the sound of Naomi and Ruth bears an uncanny resemblance to the serenely expressive music of Finzi, Vaughan Williams (in his least polyphonic mode) and Rutter. This CD presents a lovely performance although Ana Maria Martinezs voice is too vibrantly operatic for this milieu. In any event a highlight of this Milken series.
Continuing the serene style we come to the Sacred Service of 1943. This was written for choir, solo baritone and tenor and organ. It has more of a Middle Eastern flavour. Rather like Naomi and Ruth the composer shows no pull towards modernism. While Schoenberg may well have moved in the same or neighbouring circles Castelnuovo-Tedesco remained firmly satisfied by singable tonality. There is just one moment of mildly challenging dissonance in Mi Khamokha (tr. 7) but otherwise he ploughs the fields of ‘sweet harmony’. Even the dancing celebratory organ line in Kiddush (tr. 11) could have been written by Rutter or Howells (though never toying with dense harmonic ecstasy). Ronald Corp’s London Chorus are well up to the fervent demands of the score as you can hear if you sample the Adon Olam finale (tr. 16). The soloists can be a little wobbly but nothing to spoil. The composer’s dream that he might hear his Sacred Service "once in the synagogues of Florence" was never fulfilled. Instead it was premiered at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue.
The three extracts from the Memorial Service for the Departed (1960) leave me enthusiastic to hear the whole work. For a start it is sung to perfection by a very fine cantor with a lean and sensuous voice. Again the watchwords are fervour and serenity. I am not sure if the two qualities can live side by side but these excerpts seem to be proof that they can.
If you are open-minded and have an interest in the mainstream of music written for the Anglican communion I think you will find that these are pleasing discoveries. They are not works with the distinctive and almost barbarously exotic sway of Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh.
Then come three extracts from a collection of ‘fantasies’ for organ or as the composer calls them ‘Preludes’. Plainly entitled Prayers My Grandfather Wrote these tunes were written by the composer’s grandfather during the nineteenth century. Barbara Harbach plays with real reverence and in the case of V. Ra’u Banim with fitting exuberance.
By coincidence I recently reviewed Mark Bebbington’s SOMM CD of this composer’s pre-1925 piano music. That music, all drifting, suggestive half-lights and opulent impressionism, is very different from this. In these works Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s musical sincerity and integrity is what shines through untarnished by Hollywood’s allure and materialism."