Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 1. Concerto for Strings, Piano, Timpani, and Percussion
Francesco La Vecchio, cond.; Rome SO;
Desireé Scuccuglia (pn); Antonio Ceravolo (perc)
NAXOS 8.572413 (66: 22)
Smphony No. 2.
Gianandrea Noseda, cond; BBC PO;
Martin Roscoe (pn)
CHANDOS 10605 (76:58)
Of all the Italian composers born toward the end of the 19th century, Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) was the most cosmopolitan in his dogged efforts to drag his country’s music into the 20th century. But before this could start happening sometime around the First World War, he first had to drag himself out of the 19th century, as these two early symphonies (and, to a lesser extent, the much more consistently magisterial Third Symphony, available now on a cpo CD) vividly illustrate. Before he was even 20, Casella had found his way to Paris to study with Fauré (who had little actual impact on his early stylistic development), where he made crucial friendships with Ravel, Enescu, and much later Stravinsky, immersing himself in the embryonic modernist cauldron dominated successively by Rimsky Korsakov, Debussy, Mahler, Florent Schmitt, and eventually the Stravinsky of the Ballets Russes.
As a young man-on-the-make Casella was nothing if not ambitious and, following the decidedly non-operatic examples set by his early mentor Giuseppe Martucci, during his 20s he set about producing two gigantic symphonies. The sprawling, heaven-storming, three-quarter-hour-long First Symphony of 1905–06 is a rich amalgam of all the varied influences he had been exposed to up to that date. Yet, in spite of all these seemingly contradictory elements, at times the work almost seems to hang together by dint of Casella’s fiercely competitive drive and personality, typified by its dark undercurrents and ecstatic lyricism. Following Casella’s lifelong penchant for a tripartite scheme, the work opens with an aggressively dramatic and mercurial first movement with countless changes in tempo markings; this is by far the most imposing of the three, where the Russian overtones are colorfully strongest. The Adagio middle movement offers a kind of melancholic, introspective interlude before the onslaught of the excessively Mahlerian 20-minute finale, where the main theme of the first movement returns in force—the Franckian cyclical residue—before resolving into an exquisitely moving quiet coda dominated by a solo cello. This First Symphony is a young man’s tempestuous and resolute self-assertion and challenge, and as such this premiere recording represents an important discographical document poised on the cusp of the late-Romantic and early-Modernist mindsets.
Written nearly 40 years later, the 1943 Concerto or Strings, Piano, Timpani, and Percussion reveals Casella in full maturity, having passed through the purifying fires of 1920s neoclassicism. This pungently motoric, contrapuntal piece is bursting with Casella’s characteristic energy and dispatch, displaying a kind of dry, offhand self-assurance and detachment typical of the many concertante works he produced between the wars. However, Casella was occasionally capable of plumbing tragic depths, as evidenced in such disparate works as the
(1916) and the
(1917)—the latter to be included in a future Naxos release—and the great 1944
one of his final utterances. This performance of the concerto is on a par with the 1990s Dynamic collection that also featured the Concerto for Piano Trio and Orchestra and the Cello Concerto, both major works from his prolific 1930s.
This release is the first of four Naxos plans to devote to the orchestral Casella, and they have selected able collaborators in La Vecchia and the Rome Symphony Orchestra, who provide impassioned but idiomatically precise interpretations.
Seemingly hopping on the Casella bandwagon (such as it is), Chandos has released a stunning first recording of the Second Symphony, written just a few years (1908–10) after the First. Similar in its mammoth 45-minute-plus duration, this equally titanic work is even more obviously worshipful of Mahler, whose one-and-only Parisian performance of the “Resurrection” was engineered by the ever-resourceful Casella. Dedicated to his close friend Enescu (whose own early symphonic efforts show a comparable orientation), the Second indicates a noticeable growth in Casella’s sense of structure, coherence, and proportion over his earlier attempt but its overall tone is still smothered in the effluvia of late-Romantic grandiosity. Among its notable incidental virtues is an irresistibly tuneful scherzo cast in a tarantella-like mode that foreshadows important elements in Casella’s later development. After much turbulent agonizing, the symphony concludes with a transcendently redemptive coda which, once again, owes quite a bit to the manner of his hero Mahler.
As a wonderfully contrasting companion piece, Chandos gives us what is probably the first digital recording in more than a decade of one of the composer’s most characteristic pieces—the five-movement divertimento-like
By this time—1926—Casella had long abandoned his early heroic-romantic leanings and had begun, like many of his contemporaries, an investigation of his country’s rich Baroque heritage as part of his energetic campaign to create an authentic Italian Modernism. This delectable work for piano and orchestra—a precursor of the many concertante pieces from the 20s and 30s—embodies qualities of wit and humor (evident in some of his theatrical scores such a
La Donna Serpente
) almost totally lacking in his symphonies, because, even though the themes are Scarlatti’s, their treatment is invariably and unmistakably Casella’s.
Gianandrea Noseda, who has already recorded several excellent programs of 20th-century Italian masters for Chandos, shows himself here to be equally adept and idiomatic in dealing with these two dramatically opposed aspects of Casella’s composing evolution. And, of course, both the virtuoso BBC Philharmonic and the impeccable Chandos engineers are in customary top form
Naxos has announced three additional Casella releases, including the Second and Third Symphonies. It is astonishing to realize we will soon have two alternate versions on disc of all three symphonies, plus yet another
Naxos will also give us premiere recordings of significant works such as
Elegia Eroica, Notte di magio,
A nolte alta.
However, there are several other major Casella works still awaiting premiere recordings, i.e., the aforementioned
Introduction, Aria, and Toccata; and a tremendous concerto for full orchestra. And we could do with new recordings of both the violin and organ concertos.
Meanwhile, both these releases are outstanding additions to the recorded repertoire of 20th-century music and as such are highly recommended to all collectors.
FANFARE: Paul A. Snook
Works on This Recording
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12 by Alfredo Casella
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Venue: Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manche
Length: 48 Minutes 9 Secs.
Scarlattiana for piano & chamber orchestra, Op. 44 by Alfredo Casella
Martin Roscoe (Piano)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Date of Recording: 11/12/2009
Venue: Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manche
Length: 26 Minutes 2 Secs.
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12: I. Lento grave solenne
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12: II. Allegro molto vivace
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12: III. Adagio quasi andante
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12: IV. Finale: Tempo di marcia ben risoluto con fuoco
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12: Epilogo: Adagio mistico
Scarlattiana, Op. 44: I. Sinfonia: Lento grave, allegro molto vivace
Scarlattiana, Op. 44: II. Minuetto: Allegretto ben moderato e grazioso
Scarlattiana, Op. 44: III. Capriccio: Allegro vivacissimo e impetuoso
Scarlattiana, Op. 44: IV. Pastorale: Andantino dolcemente mosso
Scarlattiana, Op. 44: V. Finale: Lento molto e grave
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