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Mario CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895-1968)
Cello concerto in F Major, Op.72 (1935) [30:35]
Sea Murmers, Op.24A (1932) arr. Heifetz/Averil Smith [1:40]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni: Serenade (arr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, 1944) [2:31]
Le Nozze di Figaro (arr. Averil Smith): Voi che sapete [2.57]; Non so più [2:49]
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
The Barber of Seville: Largo al factotum (arr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco/Averil Smith) [5:43]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Miroirs (arr. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, 1944): Alborada del gracioso [6:17]; La Vallée des cloches [5:05]
Brinton Averil Smith (cello)
Evelyn Chen (Piano)
Houston Symphony Orchestra/Kazuki Yamada
rec. 2017, Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts & Stude Concert Hall, Houston, USA
NAXOS 8.573820 [58:07]

In the 1920s the Italian composer and pianist, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, spent some time in the USA, where he built strong connections with several prominent musicians – such as Heifetz, Segovia and several famous ‘cellists – including Casals, Feuermann, Cassado and Piatigorsky – many of whom he accompanied in recital. It was Gregor Piatigorsky who was to request a ‘cello concerto from the composer and this was completed by 1935, when Piatigorsky gave the premier performance of it with the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini. In spite of being given such an auspicious start the work apparently did not catch on with audiences. However, when Piatigorsky finally dropped it from his concerto repertoire he continued to keep the score close to him, so that other ‘cellists had no opportunity to play it, and the work fell into obscurity. It was not until April 2017 that the musicians on the present recording gave the concerto its first professional concert outing since it was last played by Piatigorsky. However, the world premiere recording of the work appeared at around the same time in a well-received CPO release by Raphael Wallfisch, with the Konzerthaus Orchestra, Berlin, under Nicholas Minton (review).

The concerto is on a fairly large scale, with a substantial orchestra that includes two harps. It clearly requires considerable virtuosity from the soloist – as might be expected. We start with what is, effectively, the slow movement (Sostenuto ed appassionato) and there are initial suggestions of the kind of “biblical” film music atmosphere, familiar from Bloch’s Schelomo (1916) and Voice in the Wilderness (1936). The solo part provides plenty of melodic ideas – although none of them develops in a particularly memorable way and I found it a little difficult to see where the music was going. It’s all fairly positive but, at least on a first hearing, it’s a bit shapeless and doesn’t quite cohere. After about nine minutes of this we get an extended cadenza that lasts a further two and a half minutes – before there is a significant tutti and the movement subsides to a gentle ending with harmonics from the soloist. Unlike the Bloch works there are no real climaxes - unless you count the tutti at the end of the cadenza.

The attractive second movement is marked Allegretto gentile and this gives us a jaunty little march-like theme - not unlike something Korngold might have written. There is a particularly luscious second subject and the use of harp and a glockenspiel-like celesta (?) adds an interesting flavour. The third movement (Vivo et impetuoso) has a forceful but brief orchestral fanfare before proceedings are interrupted by another extended cadenza – again all of two and a half minutes worth – in which the soloist introduces various ideas, including the principal theme. In the passages that follow there are two apparent attempts to establish a second subject before we get a big, triple-time theme that forms the basis of two memorable climaxes. (The theme is memorable enough to make me think I was listening to a restatement of an earlier theme in the concerto but repeated hearings indicate this is not the case.) Eventually there is a scampering passage that returns us to the second subject and a triumphant conclusion. It’s all very attractive and the big climaxes make this third movement the most successful. On this basis it’s not clear to me why audiences for the first few performances did not warm to the work.

As for the playing, well here is a splendid, passionate soloist – leader of the ‘cellos in the Houston Symphony Orchestra, but not previously known to me. Intonation is faultless and, in many places, his tone easily recalls that of Piatigorsky. He is fully up to the demands of the music, even if his excellent performance cannot quite rescue the concerto’s first movement from its structural shortcomings. A brief comparison of his performance with that of Wallfisch - a pupil of Piatigorsky – suggests to me that there is nothing much to choose between the two soloists. The most notable difference is that Wallfisch is slightly more expansive in the first movement – mostly in the cadenza (14:15 c.f. 13.42) - and in much of the second (6.14 c.f. 5.33). This, however, is not enough to make the two performances significantly different. Timings of the last movement are very similar.

My initial impression was that the recording over-spotlights Averil Smith – and that is a slight issue – but there is still a good, wide soundstage and the orchestral contribution is well caught in a clean and clear acoustic. Wallfisch is set back more into the orchestra. Both recording approaches are fine, once you have got used to them, and I actually have a marginal preference for the sheer presence of the Naxos sound.

Wallfisch’s coupling is another world premiere – the ‘cello concerto of Hans Gal. Naxos gives us rather small beer by comparison – a selection of some curious transcriptions for ‘cello and piano of operatic arias, piano pieces and one of the composer’s own songs. It is rather a pity that they didn’t take the opportunity to couple the concerto with something like the Ibert ‘cello concerto – which is in need of a decent modern recording, and with which the atmosphere of the present concerto has something in common. At any rate we begin the transcriptions with Mozart and first comes the Serenade from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This starts with pizzicato ‘cello taking the mandolin line with the vocal line appearing in the piano – before places are switched for the second verse. Castelnuovo-Tedesco made some transcriptions of other arias (by Rossini and Verdi as well as Mozart) for several great violinists, including one of Rosina’s arias for Nathan Milstein, one of Violetta’s for Mischa Elman and one of Susanna’s for Louis Kaufman. The notes do not tell us for which violinist the transcriptions of two of Cherubino’s arias (from The Marriage of Figaro) were prepared, but they are presented here in arrangements for ‘cello by Brinton Averil Smith himself.

Piatigorsky asked Castelnuovo-Tedesco for various other ‘cello transcriptions, but it is not clear from the notes whether the artist or the composer chose the two Ravel pieces that follow as subjects for arrangement. The composer apparently regarded one (if not both) of the two pieces as “a perfect piece for piano” but that did not stop him attempting to add a complementary voice (as opposed to a “complimentary” voice – as the notes put it). In fact, as one might expect, the ‘cello line is not just added but takes over some of the piano part – with greater or lesser success. For example, the famous repeated notes in Alborada del gracioso work perfectly well as spiccato but the passages with glissandi don’t really come off. Whilst it’s hardly original, this first arrangement otherwise works well enough. The second arrangement strikes me as somewhat pointless, given that the bell-like sonorities in La vallee des cloches require percussion of some sort so cannot be given to the ‘cello in any case. That said these sonorities are quite beautifully caught by the pianist, Evelyn Chen, who manages to bring to mind the sounds of Percy Grainger’s haunting arrangement of the piece (for percussion).

When Castelnuovo-Tedesco made an arrangement of Figaro’s Largo al factotum for Piatigorsky, the ‘cellist was apparently concerned that this “caricature” of such a famous piece might not go down well with audiences. When Jascha Heifetz saw the manuscript, however, this did not prevent him from requesting an arrangement for violin and piano as well – which he subsequently performed with resounding success. This was enough to convince Piatigorsky that he had been wrong and he took up the piece. What we get here, though, is not the original ‘cello transcription but an arrangement of Heifetz’s violin version – again (presumably) by the present soloist, despite the arrangement being credited to “Brent Averil Smith” on the notes at the back of the CD case. Some passages have had to be slowed down to accommodate the abundance of virtuoso runs and harmonics – amongst other effects – but nearly all of the most difficult vocal passages are taken at speed and the result is a joyous riot that I would suggest is capable of being as popular with audiences as the original aria.

Finally, one of the composer’s earliest transcriptions of one of his own songs, Sea Murmers, for violin – freely further arranged by Heifetz and performed by him with great success. Indeed, it was the last encore Heifetz gave at his final public performance in 1972. Brinton Averil Smith has also made his own arrangement of this, for ‘cello, and that is what we get here. It is given a glorious performance that recalls Heifetz, with superb accompaniment. A mixed bag of pieces, then, but I cannot fault the performances. It is a pity the artists couldn’t dig out a few more of these pieces to avoid the slightly short measure we are given. Recordings are clean, clear and acceptably balanced, although the ‘cello is rather spotlit, as in the concerto. Liner notes are occasionally cumbersomely expressed, with errors such as those mentioned above – and with a notable paucity of information about the concerto, but are otherwise adequate.

If you feel like trying out the concerto your choice of version may well be governed by coupling (although note that the Gal concerto is also available, coupled with the Elgar concerto, on Chandos – in a performance by Antonio Meneses). That said you can’t go far wrong with the present disc and I predict (and hope) that we shall be hearing a lot more of Mr Averil Smith.

Bob Stevenson

 

 




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