ALFREDO CASELLA: Symphony No. 1 in B minor Op. 5; Concerto for Strings, Piano, Timpani and Percussion Op. 69 – Desirée Scuccuglia, piano/ Antonio Ceravolo, percussion/ Orch. Sinfonica di Roma/ Francesco La Vecchia – Naxos 8.572413, 66:22 ****:
ALFREDO CASELLA: Symphony No. 2 in C minor Op. 112; A notte alta for piano and orchestra Op. 30bis – Sun Hee You, piano/ Orch. Sinfonia di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia – Naxos 8.572414, 76:55 ****:
These are the first two of a series of four CDs from Naxos devoted to the music of the early 20th century Italian composer Alfredo Casella. Casella isn’t as obscure as some of the composers Naxos has offered on CD, but he hasn’t received the attention he warrants, and this series should help that. One writer felt Casella’s music sounded like Borodin meets Richard Strauss, but he is in fact more original than that. Although it’s most satisfying to hear new music to one’s ears – such as Casella’s – that is tonal, tuneful, and scored in a colorful manner.
Both of these symphonies are receiving their world premiere recordings herewith. Casella’s First dates from early on (he lived until 1947) – 1906, and was his very first major composition. The Russian influence is strong and also that of Enescu, but in many sections one feels the Germanic touches of both R. Strauss and Wagner. The symphony shows considerable self-confidence though its composer was only 23 years old at the time. The work is in three movements and follows the cyclical structure of Cesar Franck, using imaginative orchestration. Casella was a promoter of Mahler’s music, and in the last of the movements one might even hear a bit of Brucknerian sonorities. A good ear might be able to pick up a hint of a main theme from Shostakovich’s (yet-to-be-composed) Leningrad Symphony, plus a theme that sounds a lot like John Williams’ theme for Jurassic Park!
The Concerto is in a neo-Baroque style, as well as emulating some Bach and even 12-tone rows here and there. It was written in the mid-40s, Casella having strong concerns over living in Rome under Nazi occupation (his wife was both French and Jewish). It has some similarities to other wartime string works of that period by Bartok, Stravinsky, Frank Martin and others.
Casella’s Second Symphony is in four rather than three movements, and if the third sounds somewhat familiar, it is because the composer liked it so much in his First Symphony that he slightly rewrote it and included it again in his Second Symphony! The work was never published in Casella’s lifetime. Here the Mahler influence comes on strong, with tolling bells just like that composer’s Second Symphony. He also directly quotes the march theme from the finale of Mahler’s Second. Casella said that discovering Mahler’s symphonies was the crucial event of his artistic education.
The second movement is however more redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev than Mahler. There are repetitive percussive rhythms in the movement that almost sound like a milder version of Mossolov’s Iron Foundry. The work’s Finale, by far the longest movement, apes Mahler in the general overall mood of moving from a brooding darkness to a colorful and triumphant finish in C Major, though not with the exuberance of most of Mahler’s finales. The 21-minute second Casella work here – which began in 1917 as a piano solo – is translated as In Deepest Night, and was “inspired by emotional events in my personal life” according to the composer. That would be his relationship with a Parisian student who was later to become his second wife. The piano introduces separate themes for the man and the woman in the score. The work’s dark sonorities show the lovers parting at the end. Both recordings were just made last year and are of high quality for standard CD format.
— John Sunier