CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO Piano Quintets Nos 1 & 2
The story of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco is tragically familiar. Hailed as a bright young modernist in the 1920s, only to be forced into exile when Mussolini brought Italy’s anti-Semitic laws into line with Hitler’s, he found refuge – like so many of his generation – in Hollywood. Eventually he took US citizenship, but to read the names of his American pupils – John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini – merely emphasises how completely (guitarists apart) we’ve forgotten his own warmly attractive music.
So this recording of his two piano quintets is overdue; in fact, although it isn’t advertised as such, this appears to be the first time the Second Quintet has appeared on disc. They’re big-hearted, expansive works, written in an idiom that Bax would have called brazenly romantic. The First dates from 1932 and is the more conventional in form, by turns tender and ardently lyrical. The Second, subtitled Memories of the Tuscan Countryside, is a product of the composer’s post-war exile in Beverley Hills. It’s nostalgic, yes, but vibrantly alive: there’s real imagination and colour, with echoes of modal harmony that might remind you of Respighi – plus a deliciously zesty folk-dance scherzo.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this recording. The Aron Quartet play
with a commitment and sympathy that compensate for occasional roughness, and pianist Massimo Giuseppe Bianchi unleashes great cascades of tone at Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s more grandiloquent climaxes. The problem is the boomy, fuzzy sound, which aggressively highlights the music’s foreground while reducing the middles of textures to an undifferentiated mush. At times it sounds almost as if piano and strings are in different rooms. Add one of those CPO booklet-notes that reads like an MA thesis that has been fed through translation software, and this isn’t perhaps the ideal introduction to two works that certainly deserve to be better known. But for now, at least, it’s the only one.