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ClassicsOnline Home » CASELLA, A.: Symphony No. 1 / Concerto for Piano, Timpani, Percussion and Strings (Scuccuglia, Ceravolo, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
This first of four recordings of Alfredo Casella’s orchestral music couples his first and last purely orchestral works. Completed the day before his 23rd birthday, the Symphony No. 1, which here receives it world première recording, exudes a self-confidence few composers could match at such an age. Although it abounds in echoes of other music, at its best—above all in the beautiful central slow movement—the Symphony has a truly distinctive identity: Casella’s fondness for dark, even crepuscular sonorities can be heard in the sometimes stunningly imaginative orchestration. After that, the driving motoric rhythms and astringent harmonies and timbres of the Concerto, Op. 69 erupt like the work of a different man entirely.
By Don O’Connor
American Record Guide
By Jonathan Woolf
By Paul A. Snook
Alfredo Casella (1883–1947):
Symphony No. 1 • Concerto for Strings, Piano, Timpani and Percussion
If Igor Stravinsky wrote music in a wider range of styles than any other composer, Casella must be runner-up. In his lifetime he was accused of dogging Stravinsky’s footsteps, a pale reflection: more than a little unfair, since (for example) the Italian composer explored atonality and serialism before the Russian. But Casella was undoubtedly a man of contradictions, even paradoxes. A devoted ‘fascist—not an evil one, but full of enthusiasm’, recalled the Italian critic Massimo Mila (who spent five years in prison for anti-Mussolini activism), Casella yet found much to admire and even emulate in Soviet Russia—especially its performing arts: the ‘miraculous’ theatre productions of Konstantin Stanislavsky, ‘the orchestras, the conservatories, and the audiences with their intense love for our art’. A man who worshipped his mother—‘my only teacher’, ‘to whom I owe the best of my qualities and actions’; ‘her mentality was perennially young and perpetually renewing itself’, not least in her ‘interest in and understanding of the most modern visual and literary arts as well as music’—Casella yet held extremely sexist views about women in general: he once described the ‘female’ as ‘incapable of true creation, or of understanding and controlling the “scientific” side of music’. Casella’s own mastery of musical analysis was hardly a model of consistency: during the First World War he composed the most radical music by an Italian before the Second World War, including some of the earliest chords containing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, yet by the early 1920s he was so desperate to proclaim his allegiance to traditional tonality that he claimed one of those twelve-note sonorities was merely three ‘ordinary’ chords piled on top of each other. Even the maths fails to stack up…
Casella himself showed scant sign of comprehending what made him tick. His prodigious output of published writings affords only meagre insight into his character. The autobiography he wrote in 1938 does not live up to the promise of its title, I segreti della giara (The Secrets of the Jar) *; which may be why its American translator Spencer Norton substituted the equally misleading Music in My Time (he also silently omitted some of Casella’s more ‘enthusiastic’ fascist bootlicking). Was Casella merely, as the expert on Italian music John C.G. Waterhouse put it with nicely English understatement, ‘reticent about his inner life’? Or could it have been that the sheer quantity of work he crammed into that life left little pause for reflection? ‘You wouldn’t believe how much time is taken up by my functions of composer, pianist, conductor, critic, teacher, secretary of the Independent Music Society etc, etc,’ he wrote to one of his closest musical colleagues, the composer Gian Francesco Malipiero, who exasperatedly characterized Casella in 1928 as ‘the 50,000km man’ (probably an underestimate: in the first six months of the previous year Casella himself reckoned he clocked up 36,000 km). Another friend, the English musicologist Edward Dent, famously said that ‘Casella has done more than any other Italian musician to aid his young compatriots to build their style, but he has also found it the hardest to arrive at his own.’ By the later 1920s Casella seems to have convinced himself—and loved quoting Dent’s bon mot to back up the contention—that his musical magpie tendencies had always been directed towards ‘crystallizing’ a single ‘stylistic and formal goal’; except, as Massimo Mila pointed out, he kept moving the goalposts. It was Mila (a native, like Casella, of Turin) who offered probably the most illuminating conclusion: while Casella’s variety does admit some recurring features, ‘the quality that gives unity to all his styles is precisely his longing for novelty, the constant need to surpass himself, his barometric sensitivity to the oscillations of contemporary taste.’
This Naxos series of Casella’s orchestral music runs the gamut of his styles, offering a listener the chance to make up his or her own mind; this first disc sets the parameters, with Casella’s first and last purely orchestral works. Composing for orchestra alone, rather than in opera, was itself rather a novelty in the Italy of his youth: less than a decade before his birth Turin had instituted the first permanent series of orchestral concerts anywhere in the peninsula, and Casella opened his autobiography with a tribute to the city’s musical life for having ‘contributed strongly and decisively to the formation of his artistic character and personality’. Even so, not one but two of Italy’s top composer-performers of instrumental music, Antonio Bazzini and Giuseppe Martucci (both also directors of conservatories) advised Casella’s musician parents that their talented son would only find the teaching he needed north of the Alps. So Casella’s life turned upside-down at the age of thirteen: as his beloved father lay dying after a long illness, he was frantically practising the piano for the entrance exam at the Paris Conservatoire. He passed; and spent the next two decades living in the French capital, the two decades when it was the musical capital of the world, not least in its booming orchestral life.
‘I thought I had written a masterpiece,’ Casella remarked ruefully, in I segreti della giara, of the Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 5 (1905–6), his first major composition. ‘Unfortunately it was soon published—“unfortunately” because it is a very juvenile work which oscillates between a strong Russian influence and those of Brahms and Enescu.’ The 55- year-old Casella is too hard on his younger self: for a symphony completed the day before his 23rd birthday it exudes a self-confidence few composers could match at such an age. Certainly it abounds in echoes of other music, but remarkable too is its almost complete freedom from French influence. Where are Fauré (Casella’s revered composition teacher), Debussy (the talk of the town) and Ravel (Casella’s good friend and fellow Fauré pupil)? Casella credited Ravel with introducing him to Russian music, and the First Symphony betrays enthusiasm for everyone from Tchaikovsky through Balakirev to Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky: John Waterhouse notes the resemblance of Casella’s memorable opening melody to the beginning of Boris Godunov. The symphony’s most French characteristic is probably its three-movement form: Casella was always partial to this template, established by Cesar Franck and already followed by the likes of Dukas, Chausson and, in 1905, the Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu. Enescu, just a couple of years older than Casella, became another close friend, and they formed a piano trio together; as ‘Latin’ prodigies who settled in Paris in their early ’teens, they had much in common. The symphony’s Germanic seasonings are perhaps less reminiscent of Brahms than of the two Richards, Wagner (Toscanini’s Italian premiere of Götterdämmerung at Turin in 1895 was an unforgettable childhood landmark for Casella) and Strauss; there are even hints of Mahler—Casella was to become his leading champion in France—and, in the massive finale, Bruckner. Games like this can be played ad nauseam (Casella should never have started it): spot the startling premonition of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony (No. 7), and what sounds like a first draft for John Williams’s Jurassic Park theme! But at its best, above all in the beautiful central slow movement, the music, like Enescu’s, has a truly distinctive identity. Casella was pleased enough with the slow movement to use it again, reorchestrated and with one extra bar, in his Symphony No. 2 a few years later [Naxos 8.572414]. But the orchestration of the First Symphony is already individual—indeed sometimes stunningly imaginative—especially Casella’s fondness for dark, even crepuscular sonorities. Highly personal, too, is the unexpectedly quiet ending, with its enigmatic return of the opening melody on solo cello.
After that, the driving motoric rhythms and astringent harmonies and timbres of the Concerto, Op. 69 (1943) erupt like the work of a different man entirely. Perhaps this Casella was a different man. Almost three times as old as when he wrote the First Symphony, he had lived through eight years of two world wars, fifteen years of fascist ‘enthusiasm’ then five ‘undergoing a complete change’ (as Massimo Mila recalled): ‘he was beginning to understand.’ Rome, Casella’s home for a quarter of a century, was occupied by Nazi Germany in autumn 1943 after Italy surrendered, and every knock on the door, or even footstep in the street, became a death threat: Casella’s wife Yvonne was both French and Jewish. Recovering from the second of three major operations after a year fighting the agonising illness that eventually killed him, Casella took refuge in composition. He wrote his Harp Sonata, Op. 68, then, in less than three weeks that November, orchestrated its central slow movement and framed it with two new fast pieces to create the Concerto, Op. 69. Its idiom grows from Casella’s prevailing style of the 1920s and 1930s, neo-Baroque rather than (the habitual woolly misnomer) ‘neoclassical’, but here deepened and sprouting new shoots—especially in the opening movement, with roots in Bach rather than the Italian Baroque, and even branching out into Schoenbergian serialism: strict twelve-note rows heard in canon and inversion. The Concerto is dedicated to Paul Sacher and his Basle Chamber Orchestra, and its sound-world has a close kinship with many of Sacher’s commissions from composers including Bartok, Hindemith, Martinů and Stravinsky, and Sacher’s fellow Swiss Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger. The strongest affinities are with another wartime string orchestra work, written in Nazi-occupied Paris by a foreigner who had lived there for more than two decades: Honegger’s Symphony No. 2 (1940–41). But whereas Honegger ends with a defiant trumpet-led chorale, a beacon of hope for the future, Casella’s finale cannot sustain its aspirations towards serenity and dissolves into a ‘strange, subdued coda’, darkly mysterious, that John Waterhouse judged ‘one of the most original passages Casella ever conceived’. This is the same Casella after all—and his quest continues.
* The ballet La giara, Op. 41 (The Jar, 1924), based on a short story by Luigi Pirandello, was one of Casella’s most popular works, and one of his own favourites.
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