Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Symphony No. 2 Op. 12 (1908-10) [55.43]
A note alta for piano and orchestra Op. 30b (1917/21) [21.12]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. 11-12 January (Symphony), 17-18 June 2009 (A notte alta), Auditorium Conciliazone, Rome; OSR Studios, Rome
NAXOS 8.572414 [76.55]

You need to make time for Alfredo Casella - especially his symphonies. In recent times they have been coming out almost monthly - and there is no anniversary this year for him! In recent months I have heard but not reviewed various of his symphonies. There’s the First Symphony, written when the composer was a mere 22 years old, in this Naxos series (8.572413). Do not forget the Second Symphony recorded by Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos (CHAN10605) in a somewhat tighter version than this, and the Third Symphony on CPO conducted by Alun Francis (777 265-2). At fifty-five minutes the Second is the longest but not by much. Previously we occasionally heard Casella’s Paganiniana or Serenata - for example on Naxos 8.553706 but the symphonies almost never. Now in the excellent 20th Century Italian Music series from Naxos we have four Casella recordings all conducted by Francesco La Vecchia.

Casella laboured tirelessly to achieve a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony in Paris. The work was over a decade old by 1910 when it was heard but it was a personal triumph both for Casella and Mahler who had agreed to perform some of the Italian’s works as soon as he could. Mahler’s sudden death in 1911 was a shock to Casella and a huge set-back. His own Second Symphony is much influenced by Mahler. David Gallagher’s informative booklet notes quotes one Quirin Principe, an Italian scholar, who said that the first movement was “almost pure Mahler”. Gallagher, and for that matter myself, do not really go along with that. Nevertheless there are certain shared characteristics.

The first movement is in one great dramatic sweep. There is even a transformed March quotation from Mahler 2 and right from the start we hear tolling bells. But there are also some calmer passages scored in chamber music manner despite the huge orchestral forces demanded. The second movement is even more powerful and at times reminded me of aspects of Mahler 7 which, Gallagher tells us, Casella had been asked by the composer to arrange for piano duet. It also has a distinctly Russian feel which marks out the score in many places. Casella had met both Rimsky and Balakirev and knew how Rimsky orchestrated. Indeed he had orchestrated Balakirev’s Islamey much to the Russian’s satisfaction apparently. This is a colourful movement and acts as a Scherzo.

The slow and expressive third movement which, like the second also begins with a Mahlerian timpani call, has been transported straight from the First Symphony but with the addition of one central bar and some altered orchestral touches more in Mahler’s style. Gallagher comments that “the musical material seems ill at ease in its new clothes” but I didn’t feel that was the case. It works well.

The fourth movement is mostly reminiscent of some Shostakovich-like march or I should say Mahlerian march but then Shostakovich was an admirer of Mahler. There are lyrical heart-on-sleeve passages which are almost Tchaikovskian in their rich colourings. I have to say that this movement is ‘more mouth than trousers’ for most of its course, but it did not prevent me from generally enjoying the symphony as a whole. Of the three the Third Symphony still seems to me the most arresting. If I have given you the impression that Casella’s Second is a bit of a ‘dog’s dinner’ than I am not too far off an accurate description but don’t let this put you off. You will, I’m sure, be often excited and carried away by its power and forceful exhilaration. This is, after all, young man’s music - Casella was about 25 when he started it.

Whereas Chandos couple their version of the symphony with the rather insipid Scarlattiana, Naxos has the extraordinary A notte alta - a much more interesting work. Scored for piano and orchestra with significant percussion it will almost come as a shock when compared with the Symphony. If I tell you that its ‘impressionist’ opening (not an adequate description really) reminded me of Schoenberg Op. 16 no. 4 ‘Farben’ from the Orchestral Pieces then you might grasp the sound-world. The booklet notes mention the influence of Koechlin, who was a fellow pupil in Fauré classes and of Ghedini whom I don’t know. It’s also worth adding that there is nothing quite like this music. Even more odd is that having started life as a solo piano work Casella orchestrated it apparently whilst on honeymoon with his second wife Yvonne. This is Casella’s ‘Dark night of the soul’ and the night is icy and insensible. The programme does not stop there because there is a male figure - the grave and pensive music - and a female one - gentle and capricious. After about fifteen minutes there is “a violent eruption” and the music dies back into its bitonal musings. This is a work that should be often played and well known.

Sun Hee You coaxes the most magical and nocturnal sounds from the piano which is beautifully balanced with the subtle, crepuscular and at times even exotic orchestration. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under La Vecchia really captures the mood and play superbly throughout but particularly in this sensitive work.

This is a disc well worth the modest outlay even if you only play A notte alta.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Dan Morgan

This is a disc well worth the modest outlay even if you only play A notte alta.