Cello Concerto Returns to the Italian Stage: Silvia Chiesa Interview

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /

Cellist Silvia Chiesa, a passionate interpreter of twentieth century Italian music, will perform Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Concerto in G Minor for violoncello and orchestra, op. 72, in Palermo, Sicily on 1 and 2 March 2024 with the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana, conducted by Maestro Massimiliano Caldi. These evenings will be the first performances of the Concerto in Italy in nearly ninety years. The dedicatee, the legendary virtuoso Gregor Piatigorsky, performed it in Florence and in Rome in 1935, after which it disappeared from the stage. The piece, which Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote only a few years before he emigrated to the United States, is the composer’s only work for cello and orchestra. Silvia knows this Concerto well: first, she recorded it as part of her project Twentieth Century Italian Trilogy, which includes for the first time together on three CDs, recordings of cello concerti by Italian composers Nino Rota, Alfredo Casella, Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Riccardo Malipiero, and Gian Francesco Malipiero  for Sony Classical. More recently, she also has performed the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Concerto in concerts in other European countries.   Silvia kindly agreed to talk with us about her infectious enthusiasm for  Italian music of the twentieth century and about her experiences with Mario’s concerto.

Interview with Silvia Chiesa by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco — February 2024

Tell us about your project “Twentieth Century Italian Trilogy,” which includes the first Italian recording of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto. 

I believe that seeking out new repertoire is an opportunity to spark curiosity and cultural growth. I already have what are considered the great concerti in my repertoire, and I have performed them many times in many countries with conductors and orchestras from around the world. However, since I was young I have always wondered why there were great twentieth century concerti from Russia, France, and many other countries, but no one studied any of the Italian works from this period, not even in the conservatories. 

What led you to become so passionate about this music? 

At a certain point in my life I felt I needed to know some works of twentieth-century Italian music that had remained in the shadows, rarely performed, for too long. There was still this idea that Italy could only be the country of opera and of song, but personally, I wasn’t convinced about that. So, little by little, I started to explore these works in a more specific way, and I discovered an entire musical universe: important composers who had given cellists works of great virtuosity and, in my view, of great musical interest as well. My research took a long time: I spent about ten years discovering various works and finding the materials, and just as many years to record the nine concertos that are featured in the Twentieth Century Italian Trilogy, distributed by Sony Classical.

When you started your project, there were no other recordings of Mario’s Cello Concerto*; It had not been performed since the 1930s, when it was written. Moreover, at that point, the score was not easy to find. Without having had the chance to hear it, how did you manage to convince yourself and your collaborators that it was worth recording?

As with the other Italian concertos that I recorded for which there were no recordings to consult from the time, I trusted in my musical instincts and in my previous experience in modern music. I have always been passionate about discovering new things and finding new expressive possibilities for my instrument: many composers have dedicated works to me, and I am very proud of this. But this was a different story. I had to convince the producer about an entire project, one that would require a lot of effort. The first CD was dedicated to Nino Rota’s concerti. Fortunately, it was well-received. Sales were good, so I was able to continue with additional recordings, not exactly a foregone conclusion when we began the project. 

The score for the Castelnuovo-Tedesco concerto was difficult to find. I called the publisher of the work, Casa Ricordi, which was following my project, and they themselves realized that they had no copies of the work available. They printed it again for me, and then it took me about two months to figure out how the concerto was to be played. From the start I was captivated! 

Could you share your impressions of the Concerto with us?

I think that the Castelnuovo -Tedesco Concerto is an extraordinary work. A great concerto with an impressive orchestration. Refined, elegant, virtuosic, expressive, sweet, and impetuous: these are the first impressions that come to mind. The composer’s writing for the cello is very ingenious, almost always in the upper register. Two major cadenzas: very pleasant for the listener, but extremely challenging for the soloist! The middle movement recalls the atmosphere of the Tuscan hills: the light and the sweetness, described with the composer’s quintessential lyricism. 

What technical challenges does performing this Concerto entail, and how are you able to overcome them? 

I would say that the biggest challenge of this Concerto is the endurance it requires. It’s about 33 minutes long, and within that time there are very few pauses. The orchestration, although fluid, never leaves the soloist truly alone except during the cadenzas. I consider it a concertante work in which the orchestra and the soloist maintain a constant dialogue. The virtuosity is always present, even in the seemingly simplest passages. It may be that the great Grigorij Pavlovič Pjatigorskij had explicitly asked Castelnuovo-Tedesco for a concerto even more demanding than the ones the composer had already written for the violin.

In 2021 you performed the Concerto in Germany and in Poland. How was this unknown work received by the public?

In Germany the concert sold out, and the public, which was hearing the work for the first time, was very enthusiastic about it. At the end of the performance I met audience members who were eager to buy my CD. They asked many questions about the composer, and this truly filled my heart with joy.  To make something known to the world is not a small thing, especially when you feel responsible for an authentic cultural project. In Poland, too, the Concerto was well-received. I’d love to share an anecdote from that experience. I remember being quite amused to hear the members of the orchestra humming the themes of the Concerto while they were putting away their instruments. 

On March 1 and 2, 2024 you will perform the Concerto again, this time in Palermo. To our best knowledge, this will be the first performance in Italy in nearly 90 years. As the date approaches, what feelings does this evoke for you?

Happiness, fulfillment. I’ve been working on this piece for a long time: finally an artistic director, Dario Oliveri, understood the beauty of it and did not hesitate to include it in his orchestra’s season. It’s not easy to find people who have the courage to present new programs. It’s always about works people have heard before, assuming that the public would not be open-minded enough to have different listening experiences. It underestimates the fact that music, when it is extraordinarily beautiful, inspires emotions that can benefit the public; it doesn’t matter where the music comes from or when it was composed.  

What does it mean to be a musician and artist? I believe that it means to spark emotion with the public through what the great artists have passed down to us. I am convinced that this is “our” mission and if we don’t do it…what role do we have in society?

Silvia, thank you for your  thoughtful words, and for all your efforts to present this work, which is still little known to audiences. I wish you and Maestro Caldi a fantastic experience in Palermo! Let’s hope that this performance will be only the start of the Concerto’s revival in Italy, and that it can someday take its rightful place in the cello repertoire. 

*Today there are three available. In addition to Silvia Chiesa’s recording with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, Rafael Wallfisch and the Konzerthausochester Berlin released their recording with the CPI label in 2017, and in 2018, Brinton Averil Smith and the Houston Symphony released their recording for Naxos.

Photo portrait of Silvia Chiesa by Davide Cerati.