Alfredo CASELLA (1883 – 1947)
Sinfonia (Symphony No.3) Op.63 (1939-40) [45:33]
Elegia eroica (Heroic Elegy) Op.29 (1916) [16:39]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. OSR Studios, Rome, July 2008 (Symphony) and Auditorium Conciliazione Rome, 24-25 October 2010 (Elegy)
NAXOS 8.572415 [62:12]
To my mind one of the most interesting and successful current Naxos series is that devoted to the orchestral music of Alfredo Casella. The current release is the fourth and contains Casella’s third and last symphony. Suffice to say all of the excellent values of performance and engineering/production of the first three volumes are duplicated here so admirers need not hesitate.
I had no knowledge of the major works prior to collecting these discs but I was mightily impressed with the scale and power of the earlier two symphonies. Casella’s third and final essay in the form is actually – and rather confusingly – simply titled Sinfonia and dates from 1939 making it a full three decades younger than the earlier pair. All three are big works; Nos. 1 & 3 clock in around the ¾ hour mark and No.2 is a full 55 minutes. Although the influences are different it is clear to hear that Casella was a man who was willing to let his admiration for the music of others infuse his own. So where the earlier works are epically Mahlerian the later work echoes Shostakovich and Nielsen as well. I would have to say that this Sinfonia has not made as immediate an impact on me as the earlier works. The central pair of movements seem to contain the most cogent and well argued music. In the excellent liner-note by David Gallagher it is pointed out that the work is truly symphonic in that nearly all of the melodic material in the entire work derives from the opening germinal material. This I suppose reflects the experience gained through his career but it does not necessarily make for as compelling a listen as the excitingly confident indeed bravura music he wrote in his twenties. The first movement in particular suffers from extended passages of musical material being ‘worked’ without the sense of it creating an emotional landscape for the listener. After the rather appealing sparse opening the scoring suffers from being rather heavy and unrelenting. That being said the final pages of the movement flutter away into quiet inconsequence. These are all impressions that are based on a relatively brief acquaintance with the work and without the benefit of the score.
The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under conductor Francesco La Vecchia continue to make the good impression they formed previously – the strings play with good ensemble and a well balanced tone. Italian brass players are always game to play with plenty of edge and attack and so they do here. I have not heard the other available version on CPO from the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Alun Francis (review) but I cannot imagine they have much to fear from it in purely technical terms. Having heard very little ‘war’ music in the opening movement the second movement Andante molto moderato opens with a string-led threnody that is instantly much more engaging and powerful than anything in the opening movement. The Rome strings are good but I can imagine this movement being even more powerful if played with the weight and unanimity of Vienna or Berlin. I like the way the music slowly builds a momentum becoming a rather lop-sided yet unrelenting march underlying some lovely lyrical lines for the strings and woodwind. It is rather quirky and individual before the mood lightens towards a calm major key resolution. The third movement Scherzo has a mechanistic (rather than militaristic) feel and while it has some of Shostakovich’s stamping energy it lacks the nightmarish malice of that composer’s writing that makes his scherzi in particular so remarkable. I wonder if it would benefit from a slightly more unleashed tempo than here? I’m sure La Vecchia’s choice is dictated by the complex filigree writing that surrounds the main material but it does result in a basic pulse that plods.
The Finale is altogether more buoyant indeed optimistic which might seem at odds with the wartime context. But as Gallagher points out repeatedly Casella was an enthusiastic indeed sycophantic supporter of Mussolini and his fascist agenda and since the war was still going relatively well for the regime in 1939/40 why not be optimistic? Again, I find there are passages which I suspect appeal more to the academics who admire the way in which the material is developed – to my innocent ear they lack a huge amount of melodic interest. But there are several passages which allow the impressive Rome horns and brass to shine excitingly. This is the movement that sounds most heroically filmic. After the bombast of the opening ten minutes of the movement there is a coda/epilogue that is rather beautiful in the way the musical lines grope upwards sinuously in a mood of hymn-like reflection which just as it is fading away with elegiac solo strings is flattened by a raucously noisy conclusion. Given that that ending lacks any of the irony or forced good-humour of a Shostakovich one is left assuming that Casella was feeling pretty good about things in 1940 after all!
If the symphony was the only work on offer here I would direct collectors to the earlier works. However, it is this disc’s ‘filler’ which proves to be the absolute jewel here and indeed one of the finest works by Casella I have yet encountered. This is also a work written in time of war – 1916 – but here the presence of tragedy and sorrow is unmistakeable. This Elegia eroica is subtitled “alla memoria di un Soldato morto in Guerra”. The very opening is magnificently striking in a way that eluded the symphony totally. Tolling horns, ominous tam-tam, skirling wood-wind and disconsolate strings immediately plunge the listener in a world of loss and despair. It feels much more modern and challenging than the later work. This is how Casella described it; “a heroic funeral march, a more intimate deeply sorrowful central episode; and finally a fusillade of death that thunders through the orchestra [and] subsides into a tender lullaby evoking an image of our country as a mother tenderly cradling her dead son”. The musical means Casella uses for this are actually considerably more modernistic than the potentially maudlin narrative might imply. It reminds me of the expressionist scores being written in Germany around this time and certainly quite unlike any other contemporaneous Italian score I can think of. The Rome orchestra are superb here relishing the extremes of dynamic and range the piece demands. Casella’s particular coup-de-théâtre was lost on the work’s first audience. The final lullaby is given to the solo oboe which plays fragments of the 19th century patriotic song Fratelli d’Italia over a string-led rocking berceuse accompaniment – definite echoes of The Firebird here. It is a passage of tender beauty and poignant rapture – all drowned out in 1916 by “a tidal wave of indignation … not a single note could be heard.” Casella pares his orchestration right back to a skeletal minimum to stunning effect. In its quasi-minimalist way this passage pre-echoes Holst’s Uranus or the finale of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.6. Even the way Casella avoids any ‘comfortable’ ending adds to the impact and sincere power of the work.
So a conundrum for the collector to consider – a big symphony that is interesting but not the place to start your symphonic investigation of the composer coupled with a shorter work that represents him at his considerable finest. On balance, at the Naxos bargain price point, I would say worth buying for the Elegia alone. Hopefully Naxos will continue to use this creative team for further projects and indeed more Casella.
A conundrum – an interesting big symphony coupled with a shorter work that represents Casella at his considerable finest.