About this Recording
8.573135 - CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO, M.: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Tianwa Yang, SWR Symphony, Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Boer)
English  German 

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968):
Concerto Italiano • Violin Concerto No. 2 ‘I Profeti’ (The Prophets)


The focus on opera in nineteenth-century Italy worked against the development of instrumental and orchestral music. Chamber music was cultivated only in the grand houses of the nobility: not until the 1860s was a concerted effort made to involve the bourgeoisie, with the setting up of quartet societies in such cities as Bologna, Milan, Florence and Naples. It took a while to accustom listeners to such fare, as Ottocento opera, with its shortish arias or ensembles and frequent moments of relaxation, was not conducive to concentrating over longer spans. After Antonio Bazzini’s 35-minute string quintet won a prize offered by the Società del Quartetto di Milano in 1866, many of the audience left the hall before the première was over. In the capital of the newly unified country, Rome, the pianist Giovanni Sgambati and the violinist Ettore Pinelli worked wonders: Sgambati’s piano quintet gave celebrated recitals from the early 1870s and Pinelli founded the Società Orchestrale Romana in 1874. Both men helped to found the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in 1877—its concert series began in 1895. By the end of the century Italy boasted a legendary pianist, Ferruccio Busoni, but the land of the violin produced few virtuosi following Paganini’s death: decades of effort by devoted teachers went into nurturing the many fine string players who emerged after World War II. The composition of purely orchestral music languished through most of the nineteenth century. The Late-Romantic generation headed by Giuseppe Martucci launched a revival, the charismatic conductor Arturo Toscanini started to restore Italy’s credibility in the concert hall and by the early years of the twentieth century the composers known as ‘the generation of the 1880s’, led by Ildebrando Pizzetti, Alfredo Casella, Ottorino Respighi and Gian Francesco Malipiero, were turning out excellent work.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco belonged to the next decade: although he and his close contemporary Giorgio Federico Ghedini were only a dozen or so years younger than the 1880s brigade, they seemed to represent a later generation. Born in Florence on 3 April 1895, scion of an ancient banking family that had lived in the city since the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was first taught the piano by his mother. At nine he was composing. In 1909 he entered the Istituto Musicale Cherubini, where he studied the piano under Edgardo Del Valle de Paz, receiving his licenza liceale in 1913 and graduating the following year. Moving on to Pizzetti’s composition class at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, he graduated with a diploma in 1918. He was greatly encouraged by two other members of the 1880s group, Casella—a pianist and conductor as well as a composer—and Malipiero. They were among the founders in 1917 of the Società Italiana di Musica (later Società Nazionale di Musica Moderna), which brought Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s name to the fore in the early 1920s, as did the Italian branch of the International Society for Contemporary Music. Like Casella, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was active as a pianist; and like his teacher Pizzetti, he became an influential critic.

Throughout his time as a student, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was steadily making his name as a composer of songs and other vocal works, starting with the precocious Verlaine settings, Chansons grises, of 1910. Pieces for violin and piano, beginning with Signorine in 1918, also got him noticed: it helped that the American violinist Albert Spalding was a childhood friend. Although he never wrote a symphony, a 1930–53 series of concert overtures based on Shakespeare plays [Naxos 8.572500–01] had a good deal of success—two of them were taken up by Toscanini. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Shakespearean obsession also led him to set all thirty of the songs from the plays. His operas, starting with La mandragola of 1920–23, met with moderate success at first but his ballets were better received. In 1925 he had an epiphany. ‘I believe that I inherited my musical talent from my mother’s side, especially from my maternal grandfather, who had encouraged me a great deal in my studies,’ Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote in a 1939 article in The New York Times. ‘I knew him to be musical, but not a musician, and it was several years after his death that we found in the recesses of his library, hidden by books, a little notebook, in which he had noted by hand, music for several Hebrew prayers. The discovery of this little notebook proved one of the deepest emotions of my life, and has become for me a precious heritage’. From then on he took his Jewish roots seriously and, following the example of the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch—whose Schelomo he had first heard in 1918—wrote a number of works expressing his Jewishness. One of the first was The Dances of King David for piano, championed by Walter Gieseking. Another important event was a meeting with the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia at the 1932 ISCM festival in Venice: it resulted in more than 100 guitar pieces, among them a 1939 concerto [Naxos 8.550729]—one of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s most popular creations—and several more works with orchestra, including a second concerto and one for two guitars.

Until the 1930s anti-semitism was not rife in Italian society, indeed a few Jews were prominent in the Fascist party which ran the country. But in 1938 Benito Mussolini started to ape Adolf Hitler’s Nazi nastiness with his ‘Manifesto of the Race’ and Jews began to lose their jobs—a high-profile musical victim was the chorus-master at La Scala, Vittore Veneziani. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music, hitherto frequently featured by Italian Radio, was suddenly absent from the airwaves, and concert performances were cancelled. In the late summer of 1939 he took his family to New York, where he was due to make his U.S. début by giving the world première of his Second Piano Concerto [Naxos 8.572823]. The concert with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony under John Barbirolli went well, although by then the outbreak of war in Europe had transformed his trip from a visit to an emigration. Toscanini helped him to find work, as did the great violinist Jascha Heifetz. After living in Larchmont, New York, for more than a year, in 1940 Castelnuovo-Tedesco moved to California and began a mammoth stint of writing film music which lasted until 1956: some sources credit him with having worked on as many as 250 movies, although he did not always receive screen credit. He continued to compose for the concert hall and the stage, turning out some seventy works after the war and at last finding success with an opera, the prizewinning The Merchant of Venice, given its première at the 1961 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. His pupils at the Los Angeles Conservatory included Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini and André Previn. He died in Beverly Hills on 16 March 1968.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco considered the Concerto Italiano his first symphonic venture. In 1924 he was approached by the eminent violinist Mario Corti, who had played his shorter pieces and wanted a ‘very modern’ concerto—he suggested the composer should look at Szymanowski’s recently published Mythes. Castelnuovo-Tedesco did so, but in the end decided to hark back to the ‘lyric and linear’ violin style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tuneful, fresh, and transparently scored, the concerto opens with a lively tutti theme which the composer described as ‘almost Vivaldian’: it is taken up by the soloist and a beautiful second theme, introduced by the trumpet, is developed alongside it. (This development, ‘in a freer and more modern form although always in the popular Italian vein’, earned Castelnuovo-Tedesco a stern rebuke from one of his mentors, Malipiero, who felt that he was backsliding from the promise shown in his piano piece Il raggio verde [Naxos 8.555856] and his vocal collection Coplas, to Spanish texts). A substantial cadenza allows the soloist opportunities for display, before the movement is brilliantly wrapped up. The Arioso is an extended rhapsody mainly based on the lovely song-like theme heard at the outset, although a five-note motif is also to the fore. The finale has elements of a rondo: a dance, with brilliant solo passagework, is interrupted by slower lyrical episodes, one of them in double-stops, before the rather abrupt ending. Mario Corti gave the première of the concerto on 30 January 1926 at the Augusteo in Rome, with Bernardino Molinari conducting the resident orchestra.

In Florence later that year Castelnuovo-Tedesco met Heifetz, who said he had been stimulated by Spalding to play the piece entitled Capitan Fracassa and asked to have the concerto sent to him. After hearing Heifetz perform the concerto in Paris the following year, within ten days Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote The Lark, dedicated ‘To Heifetz, the lark that sings at heaven’s gate’. In 1929, for the Hungarian violinist Zoltán Székely, he composed the Symphonic Variations for violin and orchestra: at the première in the Augusteo on 19 February 1930, with Mario Rossi conducting, the audience was so taken with the final fox-trot variation that Székely had to play Ravel’s Tzigane as an encore. Two months later Toscanini performed the Variations in New York, with the Philharmonic-Symphony and concertmaster Scipione Guidi; and in January 1931 Heifetz and Molinari presented the Concerto Italiano with the same orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera House. The upshot of all this activity was that Heifetz requested a concerto for himself.

This time, under the influence of ‘deep religious sentiment’, Castelnuovo-Tedesco produced a work ‘of biblical character and inspiration’, using five traditional Jewish melodies—gleaned from the collection published by the violinist Federico Consolo in Florence in 1891 and discovered in his grandfather’s bookcase—and replete with the sort of archaic-sounding orchestral effects that Bloch had made his own. At first the three movements of this ‘evocation of times in the glorious past’ were headed Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah but in the end the composer settled for the general title I Profeti (The Prophets). In comparison with the Concerto Italiano the writing for the wind instruments is more assured, something which is already apparent in the orchestral introduction. A distinctive first theme and a skipping second theme are fully developed and once again the soloist is given a substantial cadenza, this time with some accompaniment, before the brilliant winding-up. The central movement, in traditional ternary song form, starts with the soloist musing on the main theme: a faster contrasting orchestral passage is taken up by the solo violin before a return to the first theme. A somewhat portentous start to the finale leads to a happy dance melody, and as in the First Concerto there are slower episodes and a return to the faster music to end with. Heifetz, Toscanini and the Philharmonic-Symphony gave the première in Carnegie Hall on 13 April 1933. Later Heifetz said he liked the concerto very much, adding ruefully that ‘no one else did’. Certainly Olin Downes of The New York Times, who would get many people’s vote as the most pompously inflated music critic of all time, did not like it, but then he was always gratuitously patronising about Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music. Admittedly, although I Profeti predates the composer’s movie music by a decade, a slight aura of the cinema hangs about it; but Heifetz’s recording has won it many supporters and this new one by Tianwa Yang can only add to its lustre.

Tully Potter

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