CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO Settings of Whitman and Shakespeare
These two works were composed either side of Castelnouvo-Tedesco’s emigration to the United States in 1939 following Mussolini’s introduction of racial laws into Italy the previous year. Leaves of Grass, setting sections of the Calamus sequence of Whitman’s eponymous collection, was written in the summer of 1936. The bulk of the Shakespeare Sonnets, 17 (out of 32) of which are included here, date from 1944 45, though Castelnuovo-Tedesco kept adding to the set on and off for the next 20 years. Both works remain unpublished. These are their first recordings and we owe their discovery to archival research on the part of tenor Salvatore Champagne and pianist Howard Lubin, both teachers at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, on whose own label the disc appears.
The scholarly accompanying material argues that Leaves of Grass constitutes a private critique of fascism, and it would seem that Castelnuovo-Tedesco deliberately withheld the score from his publishers. Whitman’s work was much admired across the political spectrum in ’20s and ’30s Italy, appealing both to fascists, who liked his emphasis on male-bonded virility, and anti-fascists, who stressed his inclusive ideology of human brotherhood. The cycle moves Platonically from the specific to the universal, gazing as it goes at the emergence of ‘the new city of Friends’ in opposition to ‘dangers, odium, unchanging, long and long’, as austere, rhythmic declamation gradually gives way to lyricism. It’s a striking work, more so, in some ways, than the more conventional Shakespeare Sonnets, which gaze back nostalgically through time and distance at the European song tradition of Schubert, Schumann and Debussy. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s way with English is remarkable: only the occasional slip in accentuation reminds us he was not a native speaker.
Textual response is also Champagne’s great strength. His voice is reminiscent of Pears, though there’s some constriction at the top, leading to uncomfortable moments in Shakespeare Sonnets, where the tessitura is frequently taxing. But his diction is immaculate: you can hear every word, and hear it given meaning, even when the voice itself is under pressure. Lubin, beautifully stylish throughout, comes very much into his own in Leaves of Grass, where the piano, at times even more than the voice, carries the emotional weight. The accompanying material is superbly produced and presented, though the printed order of Shakespeare Sonnets, for some mysterious reason, differs irritatingly from that being sung.