Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Notte di maggio op.20 (1913) [15:03]
Cello Concerto op.58 (1934-35) [21:29]
Scarlattiana op.44 (1926) [29:46]
Olivia Andreini (mezzo) (Notte), Andrea Noferini (cello) (Concerto), Sun Hee You (piano) (Scarlattiana)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome, 25-26 November 2007 (Notte), OSR Studios, Rome 23-24 October 2008 (Concerto), 13-14 July 2009 (Scarlattiana)
Text and English translation included
NAXOS 8.572416 [66:18]
Notte di maggio came near the end of the composer’s sojourn of almost twenty years in France. It was written at a time when Casella, like most Paris-based musicians, had been knocked for six by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. And also by the seemingly innocent but harmonically subversive discovery that, if you pile perfect fourths one upon the other, you get a chord containing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Those for whom the description is too technical can hear the process in action at the beginning of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony.
Casella’s work is full of fascinating orchestral sounds, all very skilfully realized in this performance. Oddly enough, I don’t think today’s listeners will be particularly reminded of the Rite. Modernism, after all, is not what you do, it’s what you are. The Stravinsky work still feels modern a century later. Casella’s seems more like a richly-hued, decadent extravaganza. Lusciously enjoyable. Enjoyment is slightly tempered, though, by a mezzo-soprano of the kind who seems made for Azucena and Ulrica and not much else. Some notes are very good, but she tends to bark in the chest register and to push rather than open out at climaxes. But I don’t want to exaggerate. It’s a valiant attempt at a difficult score.
In choosing to set a poem by the Italian Nobel prize-winner Giosuè Carducci, Casella was declaring his vocation as a specifically Italian composer. In 1915 he returned to Italy and from then on took his national identity very seriously.
The shock-waves of The Rite of Spring can still be felt today. It’s harder to realize that Stravinsky’s neo-classical pamphlet, Pulcinella, affected its contemporaries scarcely less. In Italy, in particular, every self-respecting composer had to bring out his Vivaldiana or whatever. Casella’s Scarlattiana is probably the one that has best withstood the test of time, with several recordings to its credit. It’s said to incorporate over eighty themes from Scarlatti sonatas, though it would be interesting to see them all traced and listed. Neither of the liner-note writers mention this, but at the end of the fourth movement – Pastorale – it also introduces a traditional Italian Christmas tune for bagpipes, one which Berlioz used at least once, in a harmonium piece. If this appears in a Scarlatti sonata, I’d like to know which one. In any case, it’s a charming work, exuberant, cheeky and sometimes tender.
Casella’s last period has always inspired qualified rapture from his admirers. From bright-eyed Stravinskian neo-classicism he moved to a more marmoreal brand, supposedly “inspired by the magnificence of the baroque in Rome” but somewhat akin, in its results, to the most workaday effusions of Hindemith. The fact that the works invariably came in tripartite form – fast-slow-fast – added to the impression that he’d got stuck in a rut. David Gallagher’s liner-note suggests a parallel between Casella’s works from the previous period and such Italian Metaphysical painters as De Chirico and Casorati. So we might continue the comparison by finding a measure of correspondence between third-period Casella and the studied but cold grandeur of certain Italian painters of the Novecento movement of the 1920s and 1930s: Campigli, Casorati again – for some of these painters underwent a stylistic retrenchment similar to Casella’s – Donghi, Funi or Oppi. Or with such buildings as the Courthouse of Milan. We might go further and find a parallel between this rediscovery of classical ideals and Mussolini’s dream of reviving the glories of ancient Rome. Here we get enmeshed in political quicksands that have sucked Casella et al beneath public view in Italy for most of the post-war years. Better, then, to examine these works and to discover that, taken one by one, they are worthy specimens and sometimes more than that.
Criticism of the Cello Concerto is likely to centre on the first section, which chugs along rather uninspiringly, though finding the time for more lyrical material. Casella felt that the “central aria seems to me one of my best melodies”. The word “melody” raises expectations of a memorable tune which are not really met – and which we do get at least once in the Pizzetti Cello Concerto – but the impassioned phrases carry conviction and the listener who has sat respectfully through the first section should find himself involved now and drawn upward as a powerful climax is reached. Finer still, perhaps, is the noble threnody that concludes this section. Casella described the finale as “the flight of the improved bumblebee”. Presumably unintentionally, it also quotes a couple of bars from the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. For a busy finale that does not fall into banality it has a lot to be said for it.
It is something of a cliché to conclude a review of a little-known cello concerto with words to the effect that, given the small number of cello concertos, there ought to be a place for this one. But there it is, once past the moderately engaging first movement, Casella’s has a strong, even moving slow movement and an entertaining finale. Maybe it’s time to turn the cliché on its head and point out that, for all that cellists bemoan the lack of good concertos, there are far more worthwhile ones than they actually play. The performance here carries conviction.
The impression created by this Naxos series of 20th Century Italian composers is that the performances offered by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia are very carefully prepared with an attention to nuance, texture and balance that we didn’t get from the live RAI performances that were for many years, in their not-infrequent re-broadcasts, our only way of knowing much of this music. The downside is that they can seem studio-bound, more like careful last rehearsals than actual performances. With Notte di maggio and the Cello Concerto I have no comparison, though only the former is a first recording. For Scarlattiana I went back to a taping of the 1959 performance by Lya De Barberis and the Naples Scarlatti Orchestra of the RAI under Franco Caracciolo.
De Barberis, who has contributed some Martucci to this Naxos series, was Casella’s last pupil and a favourite pianist of composers such as Petrassi. While one hopes that Casella’s lessons were not dedicated entirely to the interpretation of his own compositions, it seems likely that she knew what he wanted. Caracciolo, too, began his career in a musical world dominated by the likes of Casella, Malipiero and Pizzetti and conducted their music frequently. So when De Barberis and Caracciolo shave three minutes off Hee You’s and La Vecchia’s timing, one is bound to wonder if the latter haven’t misinterpreted something.
Two minutes of the three are accounted for by the second movement, Minuetto. De Barberis and Caracciolo don’t sound at all hurried, but they give the music a wry humour. Hee You and La Vecchia are sufficiently delicate to avoid heaviness, but the music does seem to go on a long time at this tempo. In the other movements the difference is not so much of interpretation, it’s just that De Barberis and Caracciolo, playing live, let things fizz that little bit more. In the Pastorale, the Christmas bagpipes quotation has all the poetry required under Caracciolo without being drawn out.
This series undoubtedly offers reliable performances of a more extensive selection of Casella than has been available till now. It may be wondered whether truly compelling performances might have brought the repertoire to the attention of those not previously attracted to it. As usual, the booklet has separate essays in English and Italian by David Gallagher and Marta Marullo, both very good and both worth reading if you can.
Christopher Howell
The fascinating Notte di maggio is the most exciting discovery but the Cello Concerto is worth knowing. Scarlattiana lacks a bit of fizz.

see also review by Jonathan Woolf