Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Symphony No.1 in B minor Op.5 (1905-06) [44:46]
Concerto for strings, piano, timpani and percussion Op.69 (1943) [21:35]
Desiree Scuccuglia (piano); Antonio Ceravolo (percussion)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. April 2009, Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome (Symphony); October 2008, OSR Studios, Rome (Concerto)
NAXOS 8.572413 [66:22]
Well, who knew? Who knew, despite the composer himself retrospectively complaining that his youthful First Symphony was a ‘Russian-Brahms-Enescu’ compound, that it was so enjoyable? It was completed when Casella was twenty-three, in 1906, but other than noting this post-facto writing-off, we can still listen to it with considerable pleasure. Certainly there are Tchaikovskian elements at play and Mussorgskian ones too, most obviously in the more glowering moments of the first movement. But the brisk march theme that is also at work here is finely orchestrated, and fits in well thematically. In fact Casella couldn’t have disliked this symphony as much as he claimed because he liked the slow movement enough to recycle it in this Second Symphony - he could do so with impunity because the earlier work hadn’t been published. It’s warm, lyrical, sharing something of Rachmaninoff’s approach, though there are Balakirev intimations as well. The pounding apex of this movement, with percussion throbbing, is exciting - the tawny brass is also in its element.
Like the opening movement the finale begins with an intense Lento section - oddly sounding a touch like Vaughan Williams. Then we move off into Brucknerian waters. I realise I am actually playing Casella at his own game and suggesting influences, though obviously at least two of the composers cited can’t have been influences on Casella; this is more in the way of trying to suggest what the music actually sounds like. The finale is the most laden, and perhaps in some ways the most intriguing movement. I liked its open air sections, but I also liked its Parsifalian March element too.
So, this is an exciting discovery of a symphony that bears strong traces of late Romantic influence but which is very well orchestrated and manages for quite a bit of the time to absorb those influences to the general good.
The companion work is a very different affair, the Concerto for strings, piano, timpani and percussion Op.69 of 1943. It’s best here to think of contemporaneous works by Honegger and Martinů. The neo-baroque motor is strong and resilient. There’s a powerful Sarabande majoring in coiled lyricism; and then there’s a bristling finale, with brusque writing for the most part but an almost disquietingly quiet and unresolved ending. School of 1943, then - though, as we know, Casella’s position in Mussolini’s Italy was, and remains, highly controversial.
The entertainingly written booklet notes set the seal on an exploratory release that provides the First Symphony with its first ever recording. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under its stylistically acute conductor Francesco La Vecchia plays with whole-hearted conviction and the performances, recorded in two locations six months apart, have been well engineered.
There are two sides to Casella here; the striving, romance-hungry young man weaned on Bruckner and Tchaikovsky and similarly rich milk; and the terse, increasingly astringent older man, searching for verities in the neo-baroque amidst the tumult of war.
Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Dan Morgan   

Two sides to Casella: striving and romance-hungry and terse and increasingly astringent.