Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Symphony no.3 op.63 (1939-40) [45:33]
Elegia eroica op.29 (1916) [16:39]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. OSR Studios, Rome, July 2008 (Symphony), Auditorium Conciliazione, Roma, 24-25 October 2010 (Elegia)
NAXOS 8.572415 [62:12]
Written under the shadow of war, the first movement of Casella’s third symphony begins - and ends - with an apparently simple pastoral-type theme on the oboe. This soon expands into gritty counterpoint. The second subject, too, steals in gently, almost like a serenade. Here again, strenuous, hard-edged counterpoint, helped on its way by some brassy fanfare figures, rapidly takes over. How to balance all these elements? An early performance under Harold Byrns - Rome RAI SO, 23 October 1954 - took a broad view, timed at 12:26. The opening oboe pastoral has an air of foreboding and the ensuing development has a craggy power and conviction. Casella’s counterpoint is potentially noisy and congested - British listeners might think of the first two Rubbra symphonies. At Byrns’s spacious tempo it finds time to register.
I don’t know how often RAI included this symphony in its seasons. It turned up again in Turin on 9 June 1995. RAI’s only surviving symphony orchestra, the RAI National Orchestra, was conducted by Alun Francis. He shaved almost three minutes off Byrns’s timing for this movement, coming in at 9:38. His fundamental concerns seem to have been formal and textural clarity. The symphonic argument is propelled with a firm hand and the counterpoint becomes as little congested as the nature of the scoring will allow. He makes the most of Casella’s touches of colour - the role of the piano in the orchestra, for example, is much more to the fore under his direction. According to its own lights, his reading is a total success. However, the music seems more of a major statement under Byrns. Francis has also recorded the work for CPO, but I haven’t heard this.
At 11:28, Francesco La Vecchia would seem closer to Byrns than to Francis. This is not how it sounds in practice. La Vecchia is very careful over phrasing and balance and in the early stages there is the suspicion that he is living for the moment. The argument sounds more symphonic under both Byrns and Francis. In his anxiety not to let the textures become heavy, La Vecchia, like Francis, fails to give the music the strength and power it has under Byrns. I would place his performance slightly below either of the others since it is really neither one thing nor the other.
In the slow movement, however, the contest seems to be between Byrns and La Vecchia. It is not really an issue of timing: Byrns takes 12:09, Francis 12:28, La Vecchia 12:24. Though Byrns is only minimally faster by the stopwatch he nevertheless propels the music onwards purposefully, the piano-accompanied funeral march climaxing powerfully and uncompromisingly.
Francis finds a lush lyricism in this movement, almost as if he wishes to invest it with Baxian hedonism. It is an interesting idea and might have been completely convincing if he had persuaded the orchestra to drop below mezzo forte at least sometimes. As things stand, his reading has a trace of monotony that I don’t find in the others. Let me emphasize again that I am talking about a live performance by Francis, not his CPO recording which may be quite different for all I know.
Lack of pianos and pianissimos is certainly not a failing of La Vecchia, who finds a sense of brooding unease. He opens up a dimension not explored by Byrns, let alone Francis. I still feel that the music sounds more “important” under Byrns, but La Vecchia’s insights are not to be disregarded.
The scherzo has suggestions of Prokofief in demonic mood. All three conductors recognize that it is not to be taken too fast: Byrns 8:09, Francis 7:04, La Vecchia 7:45. Byrns gives greater emphasis to the offbeat accents and evokes a blundering war-machine, along the lines of Holst’s Mars. La Vecchia, more refined in his colouring, finds an element of mystery. The important thing is that both fully realize its menacing character. I am afraid that Francis, though only marginally faster, just sounds busy.
The finale is a rondo in C major, but with an epilogue recalling the slow movement and a brilliant final pay-off. David Gallagher, in his notes, likens it to the finale of Mahler’s 7th symphony, a jubilant C major peroration, or maybe a parody of one. Casella certainly had good reason to know Mahler 7, having been commissioned by Mahler himself to make a piano duet version of it. As with the Mahler, the problem is whether to take it seriously or to romp through it. In addition, with the Casella there is the problem of how to relate the epilogue and the coda to the rest.
It will come as no surprise by now that Byrns has the longest timing, 14:29, Francis the shortest, 12:25, with La Vecchia somewhere in between, 13:56. Byrns takes the body of the music at a brisk march tempo. There is a sense of striving which is carried through the various contrasting episodes. Under Byrns the slow epilogue has a hard-won inevitability while the coda comes as a natural release. Neither of the other two conductors achieve this.
Francis adopts a gallop-like tempo and avoids investing the music with too much weight. La Vecchia characterizes the individual moments at the expense of the whole, losing momentum in the first lyrical episode. Neither of them convince me that the epilogue has to be there, and at that particular moment, or that the coda is not just stuck on for effect.
This, as I have said, is a “war symphony”. In 1954 the war was a recent memory and Byrns had lived through it, albeit on the opposite side of the fence to Casella. Under his direction the symphony is revealed as a powerful document of its times. His performance has an ethos that is probably close to Casella’s own vision. Francis seems to enjoy the symphony above all for its technical and orchestral fluency. La Vecchia explores moods and aspects that may not have been of primary importance to Casella himself but, in the slow movement in particular, uncovers beauties that might have surprised earlier listeners. If this symphony is to speak to future audiences, it clearly has need of conductors able to reinterpret it in the spirit of their own times.
So what are the future prospects for Casella’s 3rd Symphony? The Italians have a capacity for neglecting their non-operatic composers that maybe exceeds even British underestimation of its native products. I doubt if this piece has had many more outings in Italy than the two I’ve discussed. It was commissioned by the Chicago SO and premiered by them under Frederick Stock in 1940. I wonder if it has ever been played again there? Or ever in Great Britain? It reached Vienna in 1941, conducted by Furtwängler, but have the VPO played it in more recent years? At the time I taped the Byrns and Francis broadcasts I was only moderately impressed. I must say that comparing these three performances has increased my appreciation of what now seems to me a very fine work. Nevertheless, its themes are not sufficiently memorable to gain it a popularity to match the best of Prokofief or Shostakovich. Nor does it have an instantly recognizable individual atmosphere. Only with repeated hearings do the themes begin to stick and a personal voice become apparent.
I shall continue to go back most often to Byrns, whose recording sounds much better than most RAI survivals from the early 1950s. This is obviously not an option for most listeners. Some may question the utility of comparing a commercial recording with two off-the-air tapings that are unlikely ever to reach CD. I think it is important to show that the new Naxos disc, while it offers a fine reading, does not offer the only or even necessarily the best interpretative solution. There would be room for a broader alternative in the Byrns mould. Some collectors will remember that Harold Byrns (1903-1977) made several fine LPs with the Los Angeles Chamber Symphony. If anyone feels like reassessing his work, they might like to bear in mind this one.
I’m sorry I can’t tell those who have Francis’s CPO disc whether the new Naxos version surpasses it, as by and large it surpasses Francis’s live performance. But I think they will find it worth paying the modest Naxos price either way for the sake of the “Heroic Elegy - to the memory of a soldier who died in the war”. This is a product of the First World War. Casella was at that time a more overtly modernist composer, much under the spell of Stravinsky’s very recent “Rite of Spring”, which he comes close to quoting once or twice. After a violent beginning he shows that he has learnt from Stravinsky’s moments of ominous quiet no less than from his frenzied noisiness. The first performance in 1917 drew protests from the Roman audience. Nearly a century later we might find this fairly early Casella more immediately communicative than his later self.
Where Stravinsky sought primeval forces buried in man’s collective memory, Casella applied the new techniques to a more traditional programme. The violent, protesting opening gives way to elegiac lamentation and finally to a berceuse “evoking an image of our country as a mother cradling her dead son”, capped by a few phrases from the Italian national anthem. So good old Italian “mammismo” gets the last word. One might draw a parallel with the paintings of Gaetano Previati - you will find his “Maternità” easily enough on the internet if you want to follow this up. He, too, used then-modern techniques - in his case “divisionismo”, an Italian cousin of pointillism - combined with symbolism, but channelled them into sentimental messages closer to Victorian genre painting. Ultimately, then, we have here modernized Respighi, but as long as we don’t mistake it for Stravinsky himself the piece can still cast a haunting spell. I had no performance comparisons, nor a score, but I was totally convinced by La Vecchia’s reading.
Curiously, the booklet has notes in English and Italian that are not translations of one another but separate articles. Marta Marullo’s Italian essay is shorter but concentrates on the music heard on the disc. David Gallagher spends more than half his space on an examination of Casella’s relations with Fascism. The usual arguments are paraded - he was old, he was politically naive, he didn’t understand what was happening, he was basically a kindly man, he even married a Jewess, etc., etc. In a full-scale biography all this would have to be tackled. Marullo ignores the issue and I tend to agree with her implied verdict that nowadays what matters is the music itself. In other words, when one is writing not a biography of Casella but liner notes for a CD of his Third Symphony, the Fascism issue is only worth bringing in if it bears directly on the music.
Neither she nor Gallagher actually proclaim the symphony to be a product of Fascism. And yet there is a way in which it could be considered Fascist art. Here we might seek another pictorial comparison. We might look at the Novecento movement with its lauding of ancient Roman architecture combined - once again - with a sentimental outlook reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites. Often this glorification of Latin monumentality was expressed in vast frescoes, of which Casella’s 45-minute symphony is an obvious parallel. We might also consider how the development of many fine artists was deviated as a result of their getting caught up in the Fascist ideals. The painter Carlo Carrà began and ended his career as an exponent of essentially intimate atmospheres. In between, during the two Fascist decades, he went in for monumental frescoes like all the rest. Carrà lived long enough into the post-war era to rediscover his former self, albeit stylistically transformed. Since Casella died in 1947 he did not have this opportunity. If we look back to his beginnings, to his charming Fauré-like barcarolle for flute and piano from early in the century, for example, we may wonder if he was not led astray from the path nature had set out for him. But then, the two world wars had a disruptive influence on all artists, no matter what side they were on. Casella’s talents in any case enabled him to write what is probably the strongest and most symphonic symphony written by an Italian.
A trick may have been lost by placing the Elegy last on the disc. Listening to the pastoral opening of the Symphony immediately after the concluding berceuse of the Elegy, one can only recognize the essential continuity of Casella’s art, in spite of the stylistic shifts.
see also review by Nick Barnard
Reviews of other Casella recordings on Naxos
8.572413 - Symphony 1
8.572414 - Symphony 2
8.572416 - Cello concerto
Probably the strongest and most symphonic symphony written by an Italian.