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Concerto No.3 for Violin and Piano, Op.102 (1939-40) [26:31]
String Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello, Op 147 (1950) [18:56]
Sonata for Violin and Cello, Op.148 (1950) [32:40]
Davide Alogna (violin)
Fiorenzo Pascalucci (piano)
Roberto Trainini (cello)
Federico Stassi (viola)
rec. 2018, Galleria Alberoni, Piacenza; Basilica S. Vincenzo, Cantý (Como), Italy
NAXOS 8.574003 [78:21]

Castelnuovo-Tedesco considered his first violin concerto (the “Concerto Italiano” Op.31) his first truly symphonic venture. This appeared in 1924 and it was admired by Jascha Heifetz who, six years later, commissioned a rather different second concerto (“The Prophets”, Op.66). I first made the acquaintance of Op.66 on an old RCA LP of Heifetz’s own recording and was struck by the extent to which it sounded like the score of a Hollywood biblical epic although (unlike Korngold’s later concerto – which re-used film music) it probably inspired such music rather than reflecting it. Only recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was, in fact, a third Castelnuovo-Tedesco violin concerto – another Heifetz commission. The great violinist was keen to help his friend who, also being Jewish, had finally seen the light in 1939, had emigrated with his family to escape potential persecution in Italy, and was now attempting to establish himself in Hollywood. The commission was for a virtuoso concerto but, somewhat surprisingly, with piano rather than orchestral accompaniment.

Perhaps Heifetz, with a canny eye on potential fees, envisaged that performances of a new concerto might be more frequently requested if only modest accompanying resources were required. However, the great violinist had apparently been unimpressed with the quality of the reduction to piano of the orchestral score of another violin concerto he had been requested to perform (possibly also one he had commissioned). He therefore stipulated that the piano part should be (as the booklet notes put it) of “sufficient importance and dignity for a formal and expressive balance to be created”. Perhaps Heifetz wanted to avoid compromising his own performances but, to put it mildly, seeking equality between concerto partners was unusual for a soloist who, not unreasonably, expected top billing.

At any rate, the composer happily set to work and completed the concerto by as soon as the end of the summer of 1939. He described the work’s origins and character in his autobiography, “A Musical Life”. The first movement (Drammatico) was intended to evoke the pain and upheaval of forced emigration and it begins with a tortured outburst on piano, followed by the violin, a pattern used throughout the movement. The accompanying partner certainly takes more of a leading role than usual - at least until we get to the cadenza – but this is still a violin concerto rather than a sonata (in which respect it is not unlike Holbrooke’s violin concerto). The relative violence of the music rather subsides after this solo interlude, winding down to a quiet ending. The second movement (Lento – grave e triste) is described as a tender and melancholy “farewell to the cypresses” and to the Tuscan landscape in general. I found it all pleasant enough but rather lacking any notably attention-grabbing elements. The third movement is marked Molto moderato (quasi un ‘Introduzione’), the introduction presumably being to the USA. This starts more promisingly with an evocation of arrival in New York by ocean liner on a foggy morning, achieved using upward slides on the violin. The upbeat mood is soon established with a “happy little tune” that is not far removed from the worlds of Gershwin and Korngold and, although the music doesn’t really go anywhere much, it has some memorable elements. Mention is made in the notes of a “contemplative cadenza” evoking a solitary nun, praying on the deck of the ship. I think this has to be an accompanied cadenza because I was unable to identify anything with solo violin here. The movement ends abruptly with a downward piano glissando.

Strangely, it was the third movement that was to be the one Heifetz didn’t much care for – despite the composer’s subsequent tweaks – and the work was never taken up or published. This is a pity because it really needs a violinist of his capabilities to make it come alive. The present musicians are unfamiliar to me and (despite reliable intonation) the soloist’s occasionally slightly cloying tone suggests to me that he is not an artist of the very front rank. That said we have here a fine enough performance for the work to be judged on its own merits and, whilst this third concerto is not in the league of the second, it’s a curiosity worth hearing.

The other works on the disc are equally attractive. By about 1945, settled in Beverley Hills and in the convivial company of some very talented musicians, the composer returned to performing and composing chamber music. In particular, he wrote for various combinations of stringed instruments and, over five years, he produced Sonatas for Violin and Viola (Op. 127), Viola and Cello (Op. 144) and Violin and Cello (Op. 148) – together with a String Trio (Op. 147). The relatively brief Trio is placed next on the disc. This is in three movements, starting with a modestly interesting Allegretto grazioso where the cello is given plenty to do. It is followed by a movement marked Nenia: molto moderato (a Nenia being a dirge or elegy). This initially has the cello playing in a high register and creating an eerie atmosphere. The violin and viola accompany within a fairly narrow range until the violin takes its turn to lead, finally followed by the viola. The composer drew attention to the fact that, in this trio, he experimented with the “positions” of the three instruments, which are often inverted – the violin playing lowest whilst the cello plays highest, for instance. None of this was obvious to me until the last movement: Vivace (Ritmico e Balzante) – i.e. rhythmic and leaping. This begins with a gently rumbustious theme that bounces along in duple (quadruple?) time until a middle section where I found it very difficult to discern the time signature. During the course of the music several inversions were evident. According to the composer this trio is “definitely a minor work”. However, the music sometimes betrays his Mediterranean origins and I enjoyed it.

Finally, we get the Violin and Cello Sonata which, according to the composer, “is truly of exceptional difficulty” but is “the most interesting” of the three sonatas. Like the Ravel sonata for the same pair of instruments this is in four movements. As played here the first (Lento misterioso) strikes me as neither slow nor particularly mysterious. The attractive second movement, a Cavatina (marked Andante) is described as “a love duet” and the instruments take it in turns to lead with pizzicato accompaniment – although the atmosphere here is really little different from that of the first movement. The third movement Scherzo is given the curious marking: “Mosso, con spirito – alla Serenata (in 1)” – sadly without any explanation for this being offered. It doesn’t sound particularly fast or spirited here but then neither does it sound as if it needs to be. The fourth movement Rhapsody: Introduzione (Liberamente – quasi improvvisando) is described as “diabolical” by the composer and employs high registers and occasional harmonics for both instruments, which probably put it beyond the reach of amateurs. This brings to mind the Kodaly solo cello sonata. It is quite entertaining, although the piece doesn’t achieve the heights of the Ravel Sonata (which often manages to suggest the presence of a string quartet). It would obviously have benefited from the attentions of such performers as Heifetz and Piatigorsky (who probably played it through) but the present performance, and that of the Trio, is very fine with no distracting mannerisms.

The recordings are more of a problem – in both of the venues used. My initial impression of the Concerto was of a rather “bathroomy* acoustic with the instruments set well back, without good stereo separation, and both apparently right of centre. The Trio is slightly better in this respect, but the Sonata is, again, balanced rather to the right. That said the violin image wanders into the left channel from time to time - especially during pizzicato passages. Adjusting the balance control seems to make no real difference. That said this is not a major impediment to enjoyment.

Booklet notes (in English and Italian) are very readable and reasonably informative. These are all world premiere recordings. I feel that this generously packed disc represents another example of Naxos fulfilling one of its objectives well and filling gaps in the catalogue with very listenable performances of unfamiliar music.

Bob Stevenson
Previous review: Rob Barnett


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