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Three things about Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) that need to be remembered. Firstly, he is nowadays best recalled for his numerous guitar works, of which he wrote more than a hundred. His most popular work in the CD catalogue is the Concerto for Guitar, no. 1 in D major. Secondly, he composed more than 250 film scores for Hollywood. He was a ghost writer with very few on-screen credits. He taught film music, and his pupils included Henry Mancini, John Williams and André Previn. And, thirdly, his musical style owes much to Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel as well as his teacher, the Italian composer, Ildebrando Pizzetti. He has been variously described as an impressionist, a post-impressionist, a classicist, post romantic and part of the 1920s Italian avant-garde.

I began my exploration of this CD with the delightfully imaginative Sonatina Zoologica, op. 187.This evocative piece of music can appeal to the child of any age. The liner notes point out that Castelnuovo-Tedesco takes the listener to ‘the magical time of his own childhood, running carefree in the countryside of Usigliano di Lari…’ The four movements musically portray ‘Dragonflies’, ‘Snails’, a ‘Lizard’ and ‘Ants’ – creepy-crawlies. It uses a wide range of pianistic devices to create this distinctive imagery. If the listener is looking for some clues as to what this music impact, they need think only of Maurice Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges or his song-cycle Histoires naturelles. The Sonatina Zoologica was composed as late as 1960: it largely ignores contemporary musical styles prevalent in the USA or Italy at that time.

I was fascinated by the Two Film Studies composed in 1931. The first one examines ‘Charlie Chaplin’ (Charlot), whilst the second gives a portrait of the eternal ‘Mickey Mouse’ (Topolino). These two pieces became an instant success, with the composer declaring that they represented for him, ‘the largest and most complete personalities of the cinema…’ Time may have modified this opinion, but both characters retain their iconic status. ‘Charlie Chaplin’ is portrayed more as a sad, pensive character than a comedian: the music does tend to lack humour, but never interest. ‘Mickey Mouse’ on the other hand is portrayed in a jaunty, brisk manner, yet even here there is a touch of sadness. Lots of chromatic writing and gentle dissonances play in this music. Look out for allusions to Bizet and Puccini.

The film world is celebrated once again in the delicious Nocturne in Hollywood. In 1941 Castelnuovo-Tedesco had begun his ‘career’ as a film composer which would continue unto his death. This romantic work was composed in ‘down-time’ whilst producing scores for films that often ‘[hovered] between wake and dream…’

I loved the Alt Wien, Rapsodia Viennese, op.30 originally written in 1923 for two pianos. The present recording is for solo piano. This piece is a pastiche (in the best possible manner), with the composer creating a dreamlike, cityscape that probably never really existed. The music is wayward and often quite dissonant, for a Viennese waltz. There is a curious passage at the end where the typical waltz is metamorphosed into a foxtrot. I understand that Alt Wien was arranged for violin and piano, and became a favourite of Heifetz.

Vitalba e Biancospino, Op. 21 is a diminutive pastoral fantasy dreamt up whilst a friend was telling a fairy story about a wood-elf and a fairy who lived in the forest. It is translated as ‘Clematis and Hawthorn’. The music is in the form of a rondo that one moment shimmers with sunlight and then introduces rhythmic passages that seem quite out of place in a country lane. Perhaps, Castelnuovo-Tedesco is catching the play of the dragonflies and butterflies, with fairies riding on their backs?

The world of nature, seen through the eyes of the Christian faith, features in the Cantico per San Bernardino, op.19 which was written in 1920. Beginning with a reticent meditation this work leads the mind into an ‘Augustinian’ presence of God with a long, massive climax. It was inspired by the composer’s preference ‘to pray in the sunlight or under the starry skies, on a rock, by the sea of on top of a hill, between two rows of cypress trees’ as opposed to being in a cathedral, church or chapel.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco declared that Cielo di Settembre, op. 1 (1910) was written long before he had any formal training. It is a delightful, impressionistic piece that owes much to Debussy. He has developed music that seems to be in stasis, but paradoxically reveals shifting tonal colours and harmonies. The title, ‘The Sky in September’ is well served by this redolent music.

The liner notes explain that Castelnuovo-Tedesco was sitting on a terrace on the top floor of the Hotel Vesuvio in Naples listening to the guitars and serenades. He decided to compose a Neapolitan Rhapsody. One further point: he was on his honeymoon. The work, Piedigrotta 1924, Op. 32 is named after a collection of Neapolitan folk-songs which were published each year for the historic Festival di Piedigrotta. The Rhapsody is divided into five movements, each taking its title from a poem by local poet, Salvatore di Giacomo (1860-1934). The first is a lively, rhythmic, but somewhat dark ‘Tarantella’. This is followed by ‘Notte ‘e luna’ (Night and the Moon) which is a enchanted fantasy filled with gently shimmering light and ‘lush’ melody. The third movement, ‘Calascuinate’ evokes an ancient local guitar-like instrument that may be more Spanish than Italian in mood. The attractive ‘Voce luntana’ presents the listener with a setting of a typically Neapolitan song, heard from afar. Finally, the work ends with a march-past of the bands, ‘Larlula’. The Rhapsody comes to a clattering conclusion. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s achievement here is to take local folk-music and synthesise it with his own ideas. The work will impress the listener with its evocation of Neapolitan sights and sounds, the generally lyrical nature of the music and the impressionistic atmosphere created from the fusion of folk and art music.

The liner notes by Attilio Cantore are a little bit prosy, but generally helpful. The recording cannot be faulted. I could have wished the track listings had not been ‘red printed on reddish brown’: it is difficult to read for aging eyes. Fortunately, it is repeated in a clear font in the insert.

I have not had the pleasure of hearing Mark Bebbington’s SOMM (SOMMCD 0172) playing of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music, so I cannot offer any comparison. There are only two ‘overlapping’ numbers: the Piedigrotta 1924, Op. 32 and Alt Wien, Rapsodia Viennese, op.30. However, the playing by Alfonso Soldano on this present disc is excellent and informed, and is presented with obvious enthusiasm and understanding of this relatively rare repertoire. He has studied Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s work for many years.

I do hope that Alfonso Soldano (or Mark Bebbington) is going to produce a complete cycle of the piano music of this fascinating and imaginative Italian composer. Alas, there is no sign on either CD cover that these are ‘Volume 1s’. Fingers crossed.

—John France