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Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Symphony No. 1 (1905-06) [38.00]
Symphonic Fragments from Le Couvent sur l’eau * (1912-13) [23.44]
Elegia eroica for large orchestra (1916) [15.08]
Gillian Keith (soprano)*
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. MediaCity UK, Salford, UK, 12-13 September 2013, 11-12 February 2015 (Symphony No.1)
CHANDOS CHAN10880 [77.14]

Gerald Larner in his notes to this album observes that Casella was able to “… identify the essential characteristics of the styles of other composers and imitate them with uncanny accuracy …” Larner also observes that in doing so and hiding himself behind so many styles that he “had difficulty in finding one for himself …” and that “the charge of eclecticism would follow him for the rest of his career”.

No matter; if this eclecticism led Casella to produce such an unrestrained, volcanic work as this First Symphony then this reviewer would be the last to complain. At 38 minutes duration this work is epic in all senses of the word. Its opening is dark and subterranean, an almost inconsolable lament until the textures lighten to allow some measure of lyricism. Moods alternate; at times thunderous material suggests some devil is closing in, then, prayer-like supplications hint the opposite. The whole movement is to my ears Technicolor cinematic – indeed I think I can hear Korngold in there as well as the Russian composers Larner suggests – Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov … and I think I detect Sibelius as well. Now my film score affinities are not meant to trivialise Gerald Larner’s erudite, learned notes for this album. They are merely meant to suggest how immediate and accessible this music is. The Adagio opens in desolation until a theme of passionate longing develops that, to use another cinematic allusion, could have been penned by Max Steiner for a Bette Davis 'weepie', until further material suggests Mahler. The Lento molto third movement has a mysterious atmosphere and again a hint of menace and snarling beasts; these later are held at bay by shafts of light that usher in music reminiscent of Parsifal. Wagner and Richard Strauss - and Brahms. These influences pervade the Finale. The mood is preponderantly gloriously noble and heroic with some tremendously explosive passages although the Symphony ends quietly and radiantly rather along the lines of how Elgar would end his Second Symphony some five years later.

From the Symphony, the earliest composition on this album, we proceed to the latest, the Elegia eroica for large orchestra of 1916. This was written in the midst of war and stylistically is miles apart from the Symphony written some ten years earlier. The Elegia eroica is dedicated ‘to the memory of a soldier killed in the war’. Casella was moved to write it after his country’s enormous losses in the Isonzo Offensive in 1915 and 1916. The music is wild and anguished and is as Casella himself suggested something of a funeral march, horrific, vicious and painfully dissonant. At one point one is reminded of the Stravinsky of Le Sacre du Printemps and, at another, the eeriness of the material might suggest poison gas creeping over a desolated landscape. Towards the end, the music quietens and it is as though a mother is cradling her dead son to a lullaby from which there is no awakening.

In between comes the ballet music Casella wrote for the choreographic comedy, Le Couvent sur l’eau (The Convent on the Water), set in Venice. Once again Casella demonstrates his stylistic versatility. The Symphonic Fragments from the ballet score comprise five separate movements two of which are sub-divided into two parts each. The opening movement, a ‘Feast Day March’ is a caricature, pompous, irreverent and whimsically distorted but with a more seriously inclined climax that is quite glorious. The second movement, a short Children’s Round Dance, is a joyful, bucolic outburst with a playful Mahler lurking nearby. The third movement is the first to be divided into two – the opening being a Barcarolle that has an exotic sensual atmosphere heightened by the soprano’s wordless contribution. At one point there's a quiver in the vocal line that might suggest a passionate tingle passing between two reclining lovers on a gondola – Rimsky–Korsakov in Venice? The joined Sarabande is a lament: a sarabande for dead lovers? The short Pas des vieilles dames (Dance of the Old Ladies) is derisive and slightly cruel, the music pecking and comically fussy. I was reminded of the music of Kodály, this material anticipating his Háry János. Finally the last movement is again divided into two parts, the first being a dreamy Nocturne, sweetly romantic while the second part with a quicker pulse is very reminiscent of Ravel in his Daphnis et Chloé mode.

Hugely enjoyable for Casella fans and all those who enjoy Technicolor excitement in their music.

Ian Lace



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