Rafael Music Notes

Just like Arnold Schoenberg before him and Igor Stravinsky around the same time, the Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco fled Europe in 1939. Mussolini’s new racial laws were endangering Italians of Jewish heritage and Tedesco left behind his beloved Italy and found with the help of Arturo Toscanini the much needed sponsorship to migrate to the United States.

Hollywood in the 1940’s was producing hundreds of films each year, each one needing film scoring. There he became one of 12,000 men and women employed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and there he made his living by composing over 200 film scores throughout the war years. In 1946 he chose to become an American citizen, and he and his family chose to remain in the United States. By the time of his death in 1968, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a respected and prolific composer, whose works were commissioned and premiered by the likes of Piatigorsky, Heifetz, Toscanini, and Segovia.

Italian pianist Alfonso Soldano has dedicated years to researching, studying and performing the piano music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. The results of his labors can be enjoyed in his new album, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco Piano Works (Divine Art 25152).

Nicely packaged by Divine Art’s Stephen Sutton, splendidly engineered by Christian Ugenti, intelligently annotated by Attilio Cantore and, most important, played to perfection by Alfonso Soldano on a Steinway concert grand piano, the recording was made over two months in the Concert Hall of the European Arts Academy “Aldo Ciccolini” in Trani, Italy, the album is a gem.

A member of the generation that followed Italian composers, Otorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzeti and Alfredo Casella, Castelnuovo-Tedesco rejected the artistic tendencies that influenced many European musicians coming of age in the 1920’s, choosing instead his own eclectic path, resolutely embracing tonality, disavowing the atonal and serial, and identifying most closely with the literary and poetic sources that inspire his music again and again in a sui generis fashion all his own.

Listening to each of the 16 tracks in this CD – roughly one hour and fifteen minutes of music – one cannot help but marvel at the variety of moods in this ever-changing music. Some of the titles give away at once the ideas behind the music: Notturno in Hollywood (Hollywood Nocturne), Alt Wien Rapsodia Viennese (Old Vienna – A Viennese Rhapsody), Vitalba e Biancospino, fiaba silvana (Vitalba and Biancospino, a sylvan fable), Cielo di Settembre (September Sky).

In Sonatina Zoologica (Zoological Sonatina) the music apes, mocks and celebrates the quirky movements of dragonflies, the stasis of snails, the suddenness of lizards, and the industriousness of ants. It is all done with delicate humor and not a trace of coyness.

Film Etudes, Op. 67 salutes Charlie Chaplin with wistful melancholy and gives Mickey Mouse a friendly high-five. In the five tracks of the Neapolitan Rhapsody that joyously brings the CD to its closing, the composer takes five Neapolitan Folk melodies and elevates them to the level of concert material.

Whatever the mood, whichever technical hurdles need to be met, no matter how esoteric the material, Alfonso Soldano proves himself a masterful interpreter of this music, managing to both respect the composer’s wishes and imprint the music with his own individuality.

One need only note the touch of turn of the century Viennese Schlag with which he freely lingers on the second or third beat of the waltz tempo in Old Vienna on the second track. Note by contrast the amplitude and judicious pedaling he brings to the Canticle of St. Bernard, and the light touch, agility and humor he dispenses on Zoological Sonatina.

Alfonso Soldano is a pianist of the first order and his Castelnuovo-Tedesco album a thing to treasure.

—Rafael de Acha