Orchestral Works Vol. 2
Concerto for Orchestra - premiere recording -(1937) [26:55]
A notte alta - A Yvonne (1917 for piano; orch. 1921) [19:53]
Symphonic Fragments from ‘La donna serpente’ (The Serpent Woman) (1932) [26:16]
Martin Roscoe (piano)
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Media City UK, Salford, 5 August, 22-23 November 2011
CHANDOS CHAN 10712 [73:26]
Alfredo Casella was one of those late 19th century/early 20th century Italian composers who were more interested in creating non-operatic music. They included Giuseppe Martucci and Gian Francesco Malipiero as well as Casella and Ottorino Respighi.
Although Casella spent his early years in Italy, it was to the Paris Conservatoire that he went for his training and where he developed an interest in French Impressionism. He possessed imagination and technical skill in abundance. His wide musical interests and enthusiasms embraced a love of the Late-Romantic idiom especially the music of Mahler which influenced Casella’s Second Symphony (Chandos CHAN 10605, see review), Later his musical interests turned to experimentation and he came under the influence of Stravinsky and Schoenberg but moved on again by the time the latter composer had formulated his 12-note system.
A notte alta,the earliest composition here is from the closing stages of his experimental period. It is dedicated to his wife Yvonne Müller who had been one of his students, then his mistress and later his second wife. One can’t help wondering what Yvonne made of this dedication because this music is anything but warm and romantic. It represents, according to the composer, “a winter night, clear and cold, glacially insensible to human suffering”. The music would seem to suggest the female and male response to the dilemma and anguish of forbidden love.A notte alta is not unlike Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht - it was based on a similar idea - and the Schoenbergian influence is felt throughout. Readers might be relieved to know, though, that this music is not all wearisome dissonances and clash and bash. On the contrary the harmonies and orchestrations intrigue and hold the ear; this notwithstanding its eerie mistiness, ghostly ostinatos - dominated by repetitive, softly touched gong strokes in the lowest register - a masterly inspiration - and some noisy grotesque turbulence. Peace - of a sort - is attained at the end. Martin Roscoe’s piano part does not obtrude but is absorbed into the fabric of the score to accentuate its ghostliness and icy qualities. It is disturbing but memorable music, cast in extraordinary colours. What this composer could have contributed to the horror film genre!
Casella’s colourful and accessible Concerto for Orchestra, completed in Rome in 1937, was dedicated to William Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The work’s infectious enthusiasm reaches out to the listener right from its opening bars - it does celebrate, after all, the 50th anniversary of the Orchestra’s founding. The exuberant, celebratory brass fanfares and joyful festivities slowly give way to quieter more intimately romantic material. This would not be out of place in some Hollywood romance. The second movement, a Passacaglia, is based on a ground bass given to cellos and basses. Above this each of the other sections of the orchestra display their brilliance over fourteen variations; Again I could not help but notice a certain cinematic quality about some of the music here. The finale returns to the festive atmosphere of the first movement alternating between high spirits and sentimental introspection - marked Inno (or Hymn) the tune will be recognisable to many listeners. This Concerto for Orchestra is an appealing work; amazing that this is its premiere recording.
La donna serpente (The Serpent Woman) refers to a beautiful, young, half-fairy Queen who is condemned to assume the shape of a snake for 200 years. Casella, who had, at first, eschewed opera as a musical form, was eventually attracted to Carlo Gozzi’s dramatic fable; Wagner had used it for his early opera Die Feen. This suite of music was formulated in 1932 shortly after its short run. The Symphonic Fragments are organised into two series. The first, dedicated to Fritz Reiner, opens in mysterious melancholy to rocking cradle-song like music. It suggests some Arabian-nights fairy-tale. Muted trumpet calls, tense vibrato strings and furtive cellos and basses lead to an assertive march rather like one from Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges. There’s a glowing Elgarian nobility towards the end. The second series, dedicated to Bernardino Molinari, has jubilant music from the opera’s Overture. The music of the Preludio Lento middle fragment is more muted and mournful, reflecting the dire fate of the Queen. It rises to cataclysmic proportions at its centre-point then dies away amid a sense of pleading coupled with the mournful figures with which it opened. The final fragment is concerned with the King’s heroism in saving his Queen. There’s brilliant, thunderous battle music - you can so easily visualise steel on steel - and a triumphant choral march. Knowing William Walton’s fondness for things, Italian, I wonder if he was acquainted with Casella’s work.
The adventurous listener will be very well rewarded by this very imaginative and colourful music.
Ian Lace  
The adventurous listener will be very well rewarded by this very imaginative and colourful music.