Many performers feel an obligation to program the music of living composers. Others feel an obligation, or at least a strong desire, to program the music of past composers who have been left under a bushel (in the eyes of their admirers).
Which brings me to a striking new disc of cello music: cello music by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. The centerpiece is his Cello Concerto in G minor, Op. 72. It was premiered by Piatigorsky and Toscanini in 1935 and apparently has not been played again until now.
The performers are Brinton Averil Smith, principal cello of the Houston Symphony, and that same Houston Symphony, conducted by Kazuki Yamada. The Castelnuovo-Tedesco Cello Concerto may not be a masterpiece, deserving of a place alongside the Haydn, Dvořák, and Shostakovich concertos. But that it should be heard and enjoyed is for sure.
And the transcriptions that follow the concerto on the disc are perhaps doubly enjoyable.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was born in Florence in 1895, part of an old Jewish family in Italy. That was the problem. In the 1930s, trouble brewed, and the last straw for Castelnuovo-Tedesco was the banning of Jewish children from public schools. In 1939, he left with his family for America.
He was able to settle in Hollywood and work in the movies, thanks in some measure to Jascha Heifetz. I am glad to know this. The reason is that Heifetz is a famous—infamous—S.O.B. Stories of his unkindness are legendary. I once met a nephew of the great violinist and broached the subject gingerly. “Yes,” said my new acquaintance, “he was an S.O.B. of the first order.”
But he certainly helped Castelnuovo-Tedesco, to his everlasting credit.
The composer worked on about two hundred movies and taught many people in the community. One of his students was John Williams, who would go on to be the most successful film composer ever, certainly as measured by earnings.
Often, a composer writes for a performer he encounters, who in turn would like to champion the composer. Castelnuovo-Tedesco found Segovia and wrote a lot of guitar music. He had Heifetz and wrote violin music, including a concerto. Then there was Piatigorsky and the cello. Castelnuovo-Tedesco died in 1968, in Beverly Hills (where Rachmaninoff also died, twenty-five years before).
The Castelnuovo-Tedesco Cello Concerto is in three movements. The first is vigorous, Romantic, searching, adventurous. It also requires a serious technique (which Piatigorsky certainly had). The second movement has an interesting marking: Allegretto gentile. It is amusing and off-kilter—pleasantly off-kilter. There is a hint of the Gypsy about it, or of the Hebraic. Also, like the concerto at large, this movement is imaginatively orchestrated.
I would call the concerto kaleidoscopic, and another word occurred to me too: Korngoldian.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco marks his last movement Vivo e impetuoso, which it certainly is. It has some dancing in it, and it makes major, major demands on a cellist’s fingers.
What about those transcriptions, mentioned earlier? Some of them come from Mozart operas. They are not strict transcriptions—the cellist is playing what the singer would sing, and the pianist is accompanying—but “free” transcriptions, almost new compositions. Castelnuovo-Tedesco is very, very good at it. These transcriptions are loaded with charm. He goes to town on a Rossini aria: the one that Figaro sings in The Barber of Seville. It scampers and flits and shivers. Rossini would throw back his head and laugh in delight, I think.
And the cellist here is awfully good. So is the pianist, Evelyn Chen, the cellist’s wife. I should not comment on the playing, for these are friends of mine. But one can hear for oneself. Brinton Averil Smith has all the goods: virtuosity, brains, musicality, and what I want to call songfulness. A singerly quality. In his hands, the cello is as much a voice as a stringed instrument.
Cello pieces aside, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote a ton of music—a bulging catalogue. I should get to know it better.