CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO Piano Works = Notturno in Hollywood; Alt Wien, Rapsodia Viennese, Op. 30; Vitalba e Biancospino, flaba silvana, Op. 21; Cantico, Op. 19; Sonatina Zoologica, Op. 187; Film Etudes, Op. 67; Cielo di Settembre, Op. 1; Piedigrotta 1924 – Rapsodia Napolitana, Op. 32 – Alfonso Soldano, piano – Divine Art dda 25152, 74:19 (9/15/17) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The long-neglected piano scores of Castelnuovo-Tedesco find a virile champion in Alfonso Soldano.

The name of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), if and when it should arise, most often bears an association with guitar music, or with violinist Jascha Heifetz for some arrangement, or in the pedigree of Hollywood composers whom he taught, like Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, and Andre Previn.  The scion of an old Sephardic family in Italy, he began piano lessons with his mother and had begun composing by age nine. When young Mario discovered a secret notebook in which his grandfather had annotated several Hebrew prayers, the “precious heritage” made “one of the deepest impressions on my life.” A strong non-believer in musical or ideological “isms,” Castelnuovo-Tedesco eschewed easy categorization as a composer, so his large catalogue of works earned diverse designations, including his being referred to as “the most talented exponent of the Italian avant-garde of the 1920s.” The increasing anti-Semitic activities of Fascist Italy forced the composer to leave Italy in 1939, and in 1940 Heifetz arranged a contract for Castelnuovo-Tedesco and the MGM film studio. Between 1940 and 1956 he served as a composer or associate in some 200 motion pictures.

Pianist Alfonso Soldano (b. 1986) comes to the music of Castenuovo-Tedesco via his mentorship with the late Aldo Ciccolini.  Despite the long neglect of the keyboard works, Soldano revives them with an ear to their revealing an “Italian Ravel” in taste and sonority. The opening Notturno in Hollywood (1941)—in its world premiere recording—evokes a series of modal and pentatonic scales, much in the Impressionist tradition. The island of Brujini used to be where “the beautiful people” gathered, especially in 1923, when the reigning dowager, Winnaretta Singer, widow of Prince Edmond de Poligac, commissioned Alt Wien, a kind of parody of Vienna’s dance history. Decadent and perky, the music receives from Soldano a thrust that easily allies the piece to Ravel’s La Valse.

Shakespeare and fairy tales remained dear to Castelnuovo’s heart, and his Vitalba e Biancospino, a “sylvan fable,” came about in 1921. The little rondo has a carillon sonority, delicate and piping, a kind of pastoral vibrancy. The elfin character of the dance ends on a strong C Major chord, a bit sad. With his 1920 Cantico per una statuette di S. Bernardino di Niccolo dell’Arca, Op. 19, Castelnuovo-Tedesco won first prize in a competition.  Although rooted deeply in Christian theology, its symbolism still fascinates this Jewish composer, for whom faith does not sequester souls. The scalar progressions invoke plainchant much in the Liszt or Debussy style. Another world premiere recording comes in the 1960 Sonatina zoologica, a piece designed for a pupil of Alfredo Casella to celebrate the animal world.  Its four movements embrace dragonflies, snails, lizard, and ants. The music’s immediate predecessor, Ravel’s Histoires naturelles, comes to mind, as does certain sections of Miroirs.  Like Debussy, Castelnuovo-Tedesco invokes Wagner, here in his Snails section, so the parody might relate to Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and its own swipes at tradition. The last two invocations, Lizard and Ants, reveal a formidable keyboard technician quite capable of toccatas and leggiere writing in the manner of Liszt.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco once called Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney (via Mickey Mouse) “undoubtedly the largest and most complete personalities of the cinema… even from a musical point of view.” The 2 Film Etudes (1931) capture a wistful, melancholic but lithe Charlie and the amiable, elusive Mickey whose laugh requires a rapid chromatic scale. The composer works in two opera allusions, the toreador tune from Carmen and “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca. The Op. 1 Cielo di Settembre dates from 1910, even prior to the composer’s first studies with Pizzetti. Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie had come as a revelation—and a model. Tonal mix and shifting colors mark this dreamy portrait of the river Arno under a dark sky touched by the sound of distant bells.

Soldano concludes with the five-movement suite Piedigrotta 1924 – Rapsodia Napolitana, Op. 32 (1924), which opens with a heavy-footed yet spry Tarantella, a vision of the Bay of Naples by a man enjoying his honeymoon. The Pedigrotta Festival issues collections of folk tunes, earthy and humorous. The second movement, Notte ‘e Luna, might owe debts to Debussy, but the influence sounds Moorish or Iberian. In the occasional arioso passages, we hear the Bellini influence that seduced Chopin. Catasciunate has a florid, Spanish teasing, transparent texture that Albeniz or Chabrier would admire. Voce Luntana proffers the longest piece, an evocation worthy of Granados or young Debussy of the pieces he wrote under the spell of von Meck in Russia. Soldano’s transparency of texture warrants the price of admission. In its ardent ascension to a quasi-chorale, the line reminds us of exalted Liszt. Lariula concludes this recital, and its flirtatious pentatonic may remind some auditors of Abram Chasins’ works. A bit of Stravinsky may be smirking behind the animated metrics and busy bass harmonies.

Piano reproduction for this recital (rec. December 11-16, 2016 and 8 January 2017) by Engineer Christian Ugenti proves as virile as the all-Bortkiewicz disc I reviewed back in January of this year.

—Gary Lemco