ALFREDO CASELLA: Symphony No. 3, Op. 63; Italia, Op. 11 – WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln / Alun Francis – CPO 777 265-2, 66:28 ****1/2 [Distrib. by Naxos]:
I have to confess that until fairly recently, I knew of Alfredo Casella mostly in a negative way, as the “winner” of the first Philadelphia Musical Fund Society Prize of 1928 for his Serenata for chamber ensemble. I had never actually heard the piece, or any other pieces by Casella that I could recall, but always remembered that it was Casella’s misfortune to be joint winner with Bela Bartók, who won for his String Quartet No. 3, one of the greatest chamber works of the twentieth century. Later writers would cite this as a prime example of critical myopia: supposed musical experts of the day had divided the 1928 prize between a twentieth-century master and a virtual no-name. Ha-ha.
Of course, in the 1920s Casella was hardly a no-name. In fact, he was one of those triple-threat musical personalities in wide demand as conductor, composer, and pianist. He conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra with much success, led the Boston Pops for three seasons (1927-29), and performed on the piano internationally, later with the Trio Italiano, founded in 1930. Today, like other Italian composers of his generation including Malipiero and Pizzetti, he is remembered if at all for a handful of compositions. Maybe his best-known works are his Paganiniana and Scarlattiana, Casella’s contributions to the neoclassical craze between the wars for setting the music of earlier composers. Until recently, Casella’s more serious compositions, such as the Third Symphony, have been left out in the repertorial cold.
Commissioned to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Chicago Symphony, it was premiered to great acclaim in March of 1941 and later took Dresden and Vienna by storm when it was conducted by the composer himself and Wilhelm Furtwängler respectively. A great future at the heart of the repertoire was predicted for the piece. It didn’t happen. Somewhat surprisingly, this offering from CPO is the first recording of the symphony. Or perhaps not so surprisingly, if you note the date of the Chicago premiere; it occurred about eight months before the Axis declared war on the United States. Casella, who had been living in Italy since 1937, remained there through the war, and like a lot of fellow travelers (both there and in Germany…Ed.) was later tarred with the brush of Fascism. Based on the artistic merits of the Third Symphony, this seems to be the only way to explain the obscurity of an altogether worthy piece.
Having studied in Paris with Gabriel Fauré and later fallen under the influence of Strauss and Mahler, Casella was a long time coming to his own unique style, a hard-edged neoclassicism with more than a tinge of Latinate lyricism. This style is heard fully developed in the Third Symphony. As I listened to it, I was reminded of other composers who had fallen under the spell of neoclassicism—Roussel, Florent Schmitt, even Prokofiev—but that strain of wistful lyricism which shows up in the scherzo and finale especially is unlike any of these other composers’ styles.
Because its driving rhythms, general tunefulness, and colorful orchestration are so appealing, the work’s rigorous architecture isn’t apparent on first listening. Yet the symphony is an air-tight cyclical argument, with themes repeated in each movement and with parts of the first movement returning transmogrified in the last movement. It’s a very strong piece.
Casella’s Italia, written in 1909, gives us a chance to hear music of the young composer, still under the thrall of Richard Strauss. It has a detailed program but curiously limits itself to two locales, Sicily and Naples. However, at least in Casella’s little travelogue, they provide maximum contrast—Sicily sadly impoverished, sun scorched, and superstitious; Naples bustling and carefree. Like Strauss in his Aus Italien of 1886, Casella turns to the popular song “Faniculi-Faniculà” to enliven the last part of his work. (Unlike Strauss, Casella knew it wasn’t a folksong but the work of a professional, Luigi Denza. Casella managed to avoid the copyright troubles that Strauss got into over its usage.) Despite the debt to Strauss, Italia is attractive music.
The Sinfonieorchester Köln doesn’t sound like a large ensemble, but they play with great energy, even urgency, for Alun Francis and manage the lyrical passages with equal panache. The recording is typical of CPO: bright, detailed, impactive though without the sense of spaciousness you get from CPO’s multichannel efforts. Still, this is a highly recommendable release. Here’s hoping for more of Casella’s orchestral music on disc. And in the concert hall.
– Lee Passarella