CD Reviews: Pure pianistic sunshine from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco vs the dark moods of Guillaume Lekeu

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2 (Naxos)

Pure sunshine and boundless energy come to mind in listening to two neglected piano concertos by Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968).

Fellow countryman Alessando Marangoni, who has been rollicking his way through the pianistic bonbons Gioachino Rossini scattered in his wake after retiring from the opera world, attacks these three-movement showpieces with the relish of a child who has just landed in the world’s finest sandbox with a shiny new shovel and bucket.

The two three-movement concerti, the first one in G, written in 1927, and the second in F Major, from 10 years later, are meant to be showpieces redolent in cascading chords, arpeggios and runs. There is so much pianistic filigree here that the music often sounds like an overdecorated Christmas tree, where the evergreen branches are nearly invisible. Fortunately, the pieces balance on slightly slippery, but nicely grounded tonal structures.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco is best remembered for his two guitar concertos, but these two piano works have a lot to recommend them as open-hearted escapades, guaranteed to entertain while also having just enough substance to keep more analytical listeners interested.

Marangoni tosses off these pieces with deceptive ease. His technique is flawless, his expression and phrasing exuberant and nuanced. These are true showpieces, which he delivers with a wink and a smile.

The recording session in Sweden.

Included on the disc are Four Dances from Love’s Labour’s Lost, which date from 1953. Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote several operas inspired by Shakespeare plays (four sources I checked each presented a different list), including an unpublished work based on Love’s Labour’s Lost. Marangoni, who has dedicated much of his free time to exhuming dusty manuscripts of his Italian patrimony, has prepared a glowing arrangement of these dances, integrating the piano nicely into the orchestration for this world-premiere recording.

Conductor Andrew Mogrelia and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra are suitably brilliant accompanists and do beautiful, crisp work in the dances, giving them the same élan as the rest of the music on the CD.

The composer was among the dozens and dozens of talented Europeans with Jewish roots who were lucky enough to escape fascism and its concentration camps. Like Erich Korngold, Castelnuovo-Tedesco found himself a successful Hollywood composer, writing accessible music and teaching talented youngsters like Henri Mancini and John Williams at the Los Angeles Conservatory.

But the modernists of the postwar new-music world had no time or respect for anything that reminded them of traditional tonal composition, casting people like Castelnuovo-Tedesco into the shadows. Hopefully, with a fresh appreciation for identifyable key signatures and comfortable intervals, listeners will find new appreciation for music like this.

For more details, as well as audio samples, click here.

Guillaume Lekeu Piano Trio and Quartet (ATMA)

This chamber music outing is a pleasure, but no summer picnic as Toronto Symphony Orchestra principal viola joins Montreal’s Trio Hochelaga to explore two works by nearly forgotten Belgian pianist Guillaume Lekeu, who died at age 24 of typhoid fever, in 1894.

These capable musicians make a convincing case for this young composer’s forays into late-Romantic complexity.

Both pieces, a four-movement Piano Trio from when he was 20 and two movements from an unfinished Piano Quartet, are the late-Victorian era’s equivalent of emo, vibrating with agony and angst. Even the slow movements provide little respite from the musical clenched fists and furrowed brows.

Fortunately, the pain comes in the form of beautifully thought-out structures, of deftly sketched musical ideas passed freely between each instrument. Li, violinist Anne Robert, cellist Paul Marleyn and pianist Stéphane Lemelin deliver broad-shouldered, red-blooded performances that crackle with energy and life, making for mighty fine rainy-day listening.

For more details, as well as audio samples, click here.

Here is a gorgeous, more delicate, six-movement string quartet written by Lekeu when he was 18, performed by the Quatuor Debussy:

John Terauds


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