ALFREDO CASELLA: Concerto for Orchestra; War Pages; Suite, Op. 13 – Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/ Francesco La Vecchia – Naxos 8.573004, 69:58 *****:
If you love Mahler, you can’t miss this album of early twentieth century Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), part of a series of recordings by Naxos and others that has resurrected his music. Along with Respighi and Malpiero, Casella – as conductor, pianist and concert presenter – was a primary force in bringing new music of the early twentieth century to Italy. He studied with Faure at the Paris Conservatoire from 1896-1902, where Enesco and Ravel were his student colleagues. Upon hearing Debussy play the piano he called it “pure poetry.” Casella’s neoclassical period isn’t represented on this disc, but it is the genesis of his most popular works, especially Paganiniana and Scarlattiana, modeled after Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. He was responsible for the resurrection of Vivaldi when he scheduled a ‘Vivaldi Week’ in 1939, a significant art collector, and conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1927-29 before Arthur Fiedler started his long stewardship.
The three works of this CD represent different phases of his career. The early Suite, Op. 13 (1909-10), was composed just after his years in Paris, where he facilitated the French premiere of Mahler’s Second Symphony. The opening of the Suite is more than reminiscent of the first few bars of the Austrian master’s First Symphony, and one can hear fragments from other Mahler symphonies and the Sibelius’ Third Symphony. Nevertheless, the language is Casella’s and the three movements of this engrossing 26- minute work are high spirited, pregnant with melodies, serious but not tragic, and creatively scored.
War Pages (1915, 1918) is an 11-minute work depicting scenes of World War 1 from the perspectives of the countries involved in the conflict. It’s the composer’s experimental period, influenced by Stravinsky and Bartok. Using polytonality and chromaticism, Casella depicts the “Advance of German Heavy Artillery,” “Cossack Cavalry Charge,” and others. Especially poignant and mysterious is “Before the Ruins of Rheims Cathedral.”
The longest and most important work on this disc is the magnificent Concerto for Orchestra (1937). Written for the fiftieth anniversary of the venerable Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and its conductor Willem Mengelberg, it’s a 32-minute work that frees the orchestra from the constraints of the formal symphony. The powerful brass call to action majestically opens the Sinfonia, but it’s the moving central theme and Casella’s brilliant orchestration that stays in the mind. The central Passacaglia builds to an aching climax that will leave Mahlerians weeping with joy. The triumphant conclusion is infused with an Italian warmth that leaves the listener in a state of jubilation. Casella called this work, ‘undoubedly my most complete achievement in the field of orchestral music.’
It belongs with Bartok and Lutoslawski as one of the great Concerto for Orchestra’s of the twentieth century. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under the leadership of Francesco La Vecchia perform with conviction and the sound on this disc is of audiophile quality. One of the best discs of the year that will leave you wanting to explore more Casella.
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