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Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Complete piano music
Pavane, Op.1 [5.13]
Variations on a Chaconne, Op.3 [8.13]
Toccata, Op.6 [5.23]
Sarabande, Op.10 [9.54]
Notturino (1909) [8.18]
Berceuse triste, Op.14 [4.16]
Barcarola, Op.15 [5.17]
À la manière de…, Op.17 [15.14]
À la manière de…, Op.17bis [7.32]
Nine pieces, Op.24 [30.10]
Sonatina, Op.28 [11.27]
A notte altra, Op.30 [21.56]
Contrastes, Op.31 [2.17]
Inezie, Op.32 [6.48]
Cocktail Dance (1928) [1.59]
Pezzi infantili, Op.35 [18.55]
2 Canzoni populari italiane, Op.47 [2.42]
2 Ricercari sul name BACH, Op.52 [6.17]
Sinfonia, Arioso and Toccata, Op.59 [23.34]
Ricercare sul name ‘Guido M Gatti’ [1.43]
Six Studies, Op.70 [10.58]
Michele d’Ambrosio (piano)
rec. Villa Aurelia, American Academy in Rome, November 2012 – April 2013
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9281 [3 CDs: 69.29 + 69.59 + 73.12]

Brilliant Classics, once a label which specialised purely in reissues of licensed material from other companies, has recently branched out into the promotion of their own recordings. In doing so it has commendably expanded its catalogue into fields which have been totally neglected by others. These three extremely well-filled discs do not lay claim to contain any première recordings but there are certainly items here which are totally unfamiliar. The whole series of discs is logically laid out to display the evolution of the composer’s career including three pieces which — although they do not have opus numbers — are slotted into the track-listings in what would appear to be their appropriate chronological places. There are also seven pages of booklet notes by Roberto Grisley and Anna Calenza (in English only) which – if they do not cover all the works here – certainly demonstrate the progress of Casella’s journey through his three distinct stylistic periods.
As might be surmised from their titles, the earlier works here are all imitations of classical style, although the Valse-Caprice which shared an opus number with the Op.1 Pavane — and which has a distinctly more modern title — has now been lost. Roberto Grisley describes these pieces as the composer “testing his craftsmanship” and indeed the set of variations on La Folia which constitute Op.3 are more conscientious than imaginative. Later works, from the Toccata onwards, show the increasing influence of French impressionism which was already heralded in the Op.1 Pavane clearly deriving from his study under Fauré. The beautiful Notturino (not otherwise currently available) also shows the influence of Mahler, very effectively echoing the alternating chords from the nocturnal fourth movement of the latter’s Third Symphony. The first disc concludes with a series of semi-satirical sketches in the style of various composers: Wagner, Fauré, Brahms, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Franck, d’Indy and Ravel. These affectionate parodies point the way towards Casella’s more experimental period where he consciously moved away from his former romantic idiom.
That period began with the 1914 Nine pieces, some of which bear dedications to other composers such as Stravinsky and Pizzetti and demonstrate the direction in which Casella’s music was moving, although the influence of Debussy and Ravel remains strong in places. There is also a definite whiff of Bartók in this music, not only in the insistence of repeated rhythms but also in the frigid harmonies; at the same time the writing is not unapproachable or at all contrived. After these pieces the short Sonatina seems almost like a reversion to Casella’s earlier style albeit with a slightly more sophisticated and quizzical feel. On the other hand, A notte altra (CD 2, track 13) is the only work on these discs which is at all familiar, since Casella arranged it for piano and orchestra and it has been twice recorded in this form in recent releases from Naxos and Chandos. The piano version, written four years earlier, is in no way inferior to its later arrangement, and is the second-longest work on these discs. The booklet note quotes Casella as saying “piano technique was extremely heavy work for me” but here, as elsewhere, the writing sounds thoroughly idiomatic and fits the instrument like a glove. This CD concludes with two brief Contrasts, of which the first is a homage to Chopin, but the booklet gives us no details of either of these pieces or the Inezie and Cocktail dance which open the third disc. The last of these almost sounds like a conscious imitation of Satie’s café music – it is oddly described in the booklet as Cocktail’s dance, but the title given here seems potentially to be more accurate.
The titles of the pieces which constitute the Pezzi infantili appear to imply a return to classical models, but the composer described them as “the ultimate liberation from uncertainties and experiments and the urge towards a more creative stage that is more developed and clear.” The percussive elements which featured in the Nine pieces here give way to a more poised approach, with intimations of Ravel reappearing in (for example) the Minuet (CD 3, track 12). The same considerations for clarity also underlie the two Italian folksong arrangements and rather dull Bach-inspired fantasias, but the following 1936 Sinfonia, Arioso e Toccata (a piano sonata in all but name) clearly falls into the ambit of Casella’s final compositional phase. It is a major work, the longest piece here with three substantial movements, of which the Arioso is a magnificently impassioned threnody and the Toccata a virtuosic whirlwind. After this the remaining short pieces are rather in the nature of chips from the composer’s workbench, works of consolidation rather than further experimentation. Roberto Grisley recognises that it is difficult to discern a single precise definition of Casella’s style, but hits the nail on the head when he describes it as “neo-classical and typically Italian”, a description that perfectly describes these last pieces.
The performances by Michele d’Ambrosio are superlative throughout, demonstrating barnstorming virtuosity, forceful declamation and piquant delicacy as required; and the recording, unlike some Brilliant Classics recordings, has plenty of resonance which provides a suitable halo of sound around the instrument. This is music which well repays investigation, and this set provides an ideal environment in which to do so. Casella has suffered from considerable neglect over the years, at least partly the result of his twenty-year flirtation with Mussolini’s Fascist regime which caused damage to his reputation after his death — the booklet notes skirt this issue — but this is music which transcends political considerations. I was delighted to encounter it, and those interested in approachable piano music for both listening and performance will be grateful to Brilliant Classics for making it available in such a comprehensive issue.
Paul Corfield Godfrey