A major cello concerto gets its first hearing since Piatigorsky’s premiere, 82 years ago

A major cello concerto gets its first hearing since Piatigorsky’s premiere, 82 years ago


norman lebrecht

April 08, 2017

Houston Symphony’s principal cello Brinton Averil Smith has resurrected Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s lost Cello Concerto, last heard at its 1935 world premiere by Gregor Piatigorsky, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

He’s playing it over the Easter weekend.

Here’s a clip:

Apparently, Piatigorsky had exclusive rights to the concerto and refused to let anyone else play it. Then he forgot about it. Brinton Smith has now excavated it from the Ricordi archives.

Might Houston stream the modern premiere online?



  • Malcolm Kottler says:

    In his biography of Piatigorsky–Gregor Piatigorsky, The Life and Career of the Virtuoso Cellist (McFarland & Co., 2010)–Terry King writes (pp. 96-100) about how this concerto came to be written for Piatigorsky and then premiered with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic. According to King, Piatigorsky did play the concerto several times in Europe after the world premiere.

    In his autobiography Cellist (pp. 225-26), Piatigorsky writes about rehearsing for the premiere, with Toscanini playing the piano. In advance of this rehearsal, Toscanini, the former cellist, had marked the manuscript with his own ideas about fingerings and bowings.

    • Malcolm Kottler says:

      Here is what Piatigorsky wrote in his autobiography Cellist (chapter 26, pp. 225-26) about the concerto.

      I looked forward to the crossing, not only because I needed rest, but because it would give me an opportunity to practice. But, as luck would have it, a crippling cold and fever, crowned by seasickness, put me into bed and kept me there with the manuscript of the Castelnuove-Tedesco Concerto throughout the long voyage.

      Still shaky, the instant I entered my hotel room in New York I received a telephone call from Maestro Toscanini. “What have you been doing all this time?” he said impatiently. “Your boat landed hours ago. Hurry, I am waiting for you.” Soon I faced Maestro at the Astor Hotel, where he lived. Rosy-cheeked, he hurried me to take the cello out of the case and to start rehearsing. He spoke with agitation of the stupidity of conductors and soloists and their habit of playing everything in a wrong tempo. This was his favorite topic and I did not expect him to stop so abruptly. He moved toward me, closer and closer, until his face almost touched mine. He stared at me scrutinizingly with his near-blind eyes, as if I were a terrible misprint in a score. He twisted his mustache, shook his head, and said, “Bad, very bad. Hemorrhoids again? Didn’t you try the medicine I gave you in Milano? It helped Puccini. Your face is green,” he concluded gravely.

      Maestro at the piano, we began the concerto. Glancing at his score, I noticed that the cello part was virtually covered with penciled fingerings and bowings. No cellist except me had seen the concerto. Surprised, I asked who had made the markings.

      “I did,” said Maestro.


      “Did you forget I was a cellist?” he said, smiling. “One does hear fingerings and bowings, and I wanted to know if yours would be the same as mine.”

      Maestro banged on the piano in a true Kapellmeister manner. He spoke and he sang, and his spontaneity and vigor carried me away. By the end of our long and exhilarating session I had miraculously regained my strength, and I returned to the hotel in an exuberant frame of mind.

  • Steven Honigberg says:

    John Martin (died 2005), principal cellist of the NSO for 50 years, who studied for one year with Piatigorsky at Curtis told me Piatigorsky assigned him this concerto and for months they worked on it. Martin hated it and in hindsight told me it was a waste of his time and effort.

  • John Borstlap says:

    According to the video, the music seems to be rather on the cheap side, aiming for easy effects.

    • Brinton Smith says:

      More ‘Korn’ than ‘gold’ perhaps? It’s not Brahms but what a boring world it would be if everything were Brahms. I’m happy to advocate for music I believe in and leave it to the world decide, but it deserves a chance. Cheers-

      • John Borstlap says:

        Agreed…. there are far not enough chances for music we don’t know.

        And too many chances for music we don’t want to know.

  • Brinton Smith says:

    Thanks for mentioning this. To clarify a few details, Piatigorsky did perform the concerto a few more times in Europe after the premiere, and this work was performed by the Brown student orchestra at a seminar on MCT’s works since, but hasn’t been performed professionally in over 80 years. Piatigorsky had an excellent record of comissioning and encouraging works, but did not support most of his commissions by repeatedly programming them and recording them, as Heifetz had. This recording, paired with transcriptions of MCT (many previously unrecorded) will be released on Naxos in 2018, assuming we can get what we need from the live concerts- there is no patch session! A more detailed video/explanation can be seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQfoOkHNWrs. We are thirilled that alll four of Mario’s grandchildren will attend the concert. Cheers-

    • Steven Honigberg says:

      I was a big fan of John’s (he was a remarkable personality) but he could have wanted to study a classic cello concerto in his youth with Piatigorsky and felt robbed that he was being fed this concerto instead. I don’t think he saw much of the Master either in his lone year. Good luck with your project.

  • Kate Dillingham says:

    Brahms…if only he’d written cello concerto! Wonderful to follow your championing of this work, BAS! Looking forward to the Naxos release.


    Based on this short excerpt, the work seems not cheap at all, rather, in keeping and consistency with MCT’s sunny, Mediterranean, and humanistic idiom. If you know his music beyond the corpus of guitar works you can recognize a strong, personal idiom, and his easy and virtuosic writing for strings. This piece should prove a winner for players and audience alike.