Guitar Music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco – solo and chamber works. Eliot Fisk, guitar; Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, Richard Kapp, conductor; & The Shanghai String Quartet. Musical Heritage Society #5178301, 14 tracks, 79 minutes, © 2004.

No list of classical guitar bullet points is complete without fail-safe and flexible performance technique, composer Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and protagonist Eliot Fisk; an enduring tripod of forces. Therein, this particular disc was welcome in 2005, if not overdue.

Born in Florence April 3, 1895, into a family of Sephardic origin, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was clearly an artistic child with musical proclivities. In his native Italy, he was nurtured and trained, and he later enjoyed success as a piano soloist, accompanist and chamber musician. In 1938 he was forced by the rising tide of anti-Semitism to flee Italy, and in America he continued a relationship with Arturo Toscanini. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra had earlier premiered several of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s works including I profeti (Violin Concerto No. 2) with Jascha Heifetz as soloist in 1933, and the Cello Concerto with Gregor Piatigorsky in 1935. In 1939, Tedesco himself performed the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto.

Soon he found his skills in demand on the left coast, where he began composing film music for MGM Studios in California. His film score credits number over 200. There he also enjoyed a modest teaching career. His pupils include John Williams (the composer), Henry Mancini, and André Previn. Later, Previn would admit that being a pupil of Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a requirement if you were going to be taken seriously by the studios. Among the guitar cognoscenti it is his relationship to Andrés Segovia that is considered most important for the stream of rich solo and chamber compositions that flowed at exactly the time Segovia’s crusade for the instrument’s artistic legitimacy was on a steep climb.

We should remember the evolving forces in the world of composition during the first half of the 20th century. At odds with contemporary trends, Tedesco wrote consonant harmony and lyrical melodies when it was fashionable to mimic the “new” techniques of serialism and dodecophony. Perhaps he resisted those influences due to the persistent — and lucrative — demands of Hollywood’s film business. Or he may have simply been a romantic at heart.

This recording begins with the evergreen Concerto in D, Op. 99, for guitar and orchestra. Fashioned in typical sonata-allegro form, Tedesco’s abundant skills are in full bloom in the first movement, where he establishes both the key and a Mediterranean character. Taking the Allegretto briskly, conductor Kapp holds the Czech Philharmonic in check throughout the performance, leaving room for Fisk’s abundant technical skills to arrive and depart key junctures and giving the orchestra space to breathe in sections resplendent in color and themes. The application of contrary motion and long pedals keep the ear engaged throughout the development of wonderful themes. The compliment of strings, woodwinds, percussion, and brass is just about right.

The middle “Andantino alla romanza,” with one of the great lyrical melodies to emerge from twentieth century experimental gyrations, is treated with respect and imagination while navigating several tonal centers. The opening solo guitar monologue is echoed by the orchestra, and later both soloist and ensemble compete for the softest pianissimo. The guitar wins. The third movement, “Ritmico e cavalleresco,” suggests a dozen riders on the horizon and churning hoofs. Again the music is taken at a brisk tempo exploiting the majesty, Iberian grandeur, and exciting passage work for Fisk, who keeps forward pressure on the tempo. At the same time he knows the term rubato means that eventually you have to give back what you’ve taken, so the flexibility between the soloist and ensemble is remarkable and, often, breathtaking. Tedesco eventually has the last word by layering two themes from the movement during the run up to the coda. It is masterful art on everyone’s part.

Taking a cue from Segovia, Fisk has programmed a few solo pieces from Platero y Yo, a work for narrator and guitar that uses Juan Ramon Jimenez’ poetry of the same name as its basis. After a rippling waterfall introduction, “Golondrinas” (“Swallows”) allows Tedesco to be revealed through poetic imagery. “La Primavera” (“Springtime”) is a moto perpetuo at breakneck speed with full tertiary harmony passing above open-string pedals. “Platero en el Cielo de Moguer” (“Platero in the Heaven of Monguer”) is a deeply moving and sensitive tribute.

Next on this disk we have a rare performance of the Rondo, Op. 133; underperformed and nearly unknown; it is one of the great solo guitar works. This performance is given full energy to extract all the compositional devices Tedesco has instilled. During modest leaps of interval, Fisk’s playing along a single string preserves continuity of phrase and line. Often the arpeggios are dizzying in height and length, but always there is order, structure, and a tuneful purpose.

Then comes the three movement Suite, Op. 133; not for the faint of heart and regarded as unplayable for a long time. With the exception of works published in Segovia’s lifetime MC-T’s later scores of guitar music nearly always require some editing for performance. A common rule of thumb is to keep the soprano and bass line then re-voice what lies between. Fisk has found admirable solutions for this “suite.” A brooding Prelude opens the work, offering thoughtful expectation. The middle Molto offers a mix of ideas, tempi, and a loping descending figure reminiscent of Platero. The rubber meets the road in the third movement, Capriccio – Furioso. A skipping rhythm, a pair of sixteenths in front of beat one, and dense chords are the departure point, but ambiguity reins. There is often a lack of clear direction, but just as often a sudden cadence serves as temporary anchor. Fisk makes the most of this work, and its conclusion has all the thunder, wind and lightning a guitar can make.

This disk ends with Tedesco’s chamber masterpiece, the Quintet, Op. 43, for guitar and strings. Its five-movement architecture is the classic structure of major twentieth century works; the singing lines are abundant, the harmonic movement is satisfying, and there is impassioned playing from every quarter in a work full of opportunities. Segovia learned this work for one performance, recorded it the next day, and never played it again. Fisk and the Shanghai Quartet have already installed the work as a program staple of their numerous performances together. It is good food for the ear.

One of the dangers of a virtuoso technique, whether heard, seen, or both, is the ease with which the artist seems to execute nearly everything. After a while — like after 20 or so recordings — one begins to take for granted that artist A will toss another program owing to some formula. This is not always the case, and the listener should guard against any such assumptions. I witnessed Fisk perform the premiere of a work for guitar and string quartet by Van Stiefel several years ago. One movement is a solo; we had spoken about its demanding technical aspects before the program, and I thought I understood its complexity. Yet during the performance the music was delivered in such a fluid, seemingly error-free manner that it was difficult to grasp what all the fuss was about. The third movement of Tedesco’s Suite is a similar example, as is the Rondo. The artist had to work very hard to achieve these realizations, and they are benchmarks for future artists to measure their work.

The only way to really know what’s going on is to read along with the score, but as a listening experience, this disc satisfies on nearly every level. The artist has presented his vision of one cornerstone of the guitar repertoire. It is a welcome and refreshing addition to his already substantial and memorable discography.