Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 5 (1905-06) [37:59]
Sinfonia (Symphony No. 3), Op. 63 (1939-40) [41:55]
Symphonic Fragments from La donna serpente, Op. 50, (1928-31) [26:16]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12 (1908-10) [49:20]
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, UK
12-13 January 2010 (op. 12); MediaCity UK, Salford, 22-23 November 2011 (op.
50); 6-7 November 2012 (op. 63); 11-12 February 2015 (op. 5)
Premiere recording (Op. 12) CHANDOS CHAN10895(2) [80:10 + 75:53]
Next year in 2017 Gianandrea Noseda takes up his position as chief conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC, after being named Conductor of the Year at last year’s Musical America awards. In celebration of this formidable achievement, Chandos have released this ‘twofer’ on which they have corralled the complete symphonies from the highly acclaimed Alfredo Casella 4 CD series which he made with the BBC Philharmonic between 2009 and 2015.
The Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 5 was begun in Paris and completed the day before his 23rd birthday in Piedmont in 1906. In his mid-fifties Casella looked back on it with some reservations, commenting that it was ‘very juvenile’. I actually find it highly accomplished and brimming with self-confidence for it was, after all, his first major composition. He frequently boasted the ability to imitate the styles of other composers, and this chameleon-like quality led to a charge of eclecticism which would dog him throughout his career. Listening to this work for the first time I could hear Brahms, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, and what surprised me, more than anything else, is that it is completely devoid of Gallic sensibilities - this from a student of Gabriel Fauré. That said, it does make concessions to the Franckian template of the three-movement form, strongly favoured by the French.
The first movement begins with a dark, sombre theme on the cellos and basses, with Mussorgsky standing defiantly at the door. Eventually this opens out into a vigorous march theme, which tends to dominate proceedings. The gloomy, bleak demeanour extends to the ‘Mahlerian’ Adagio, which Casella regarded highly enough to re-work and re-orchestrate as the slow movement of his Second Symphony. The third movement has a slow introduction marked Lent molto, and it acts as a transition to the finale proper, a heady mix of Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Richard Strauss. The music is bold and exuberant with generous soaring melodies.
Two years later the composer embarked on his Second Symphony, which he finished in 1909. Sumptuously orchestrated, there is clearly a Mahlerian influence pervading the work. Casella met Mahler in 1909, and the older composer was amazed to learn that the younger man knew all his symphonies ‘by heart’. Going against the current grain, he liked Mahler’s music and was instrumental in arranging for the Austrian to conduct his Second Symphony Resurrection at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet in 1910. Six days later Casella premiered his own Second Symphony at the Salle Gaveau.
It has a dark portentous opening, similar to its predecessor, with bell sounds evoking eeriness. Soon, drama and passion are in full swing, and tension is further created by the combative elements which underpin the music. There are also moments of tender lyricism. A persistent ostinato rhythm ushers in the Scherzo, which has a contrasting exotic-sounding middle section. The Mahlerian slow movement is lifted from the First Symphony in a re-worked reincarnation. Anguished sorrow is the prevailing mood. I couldn’t quite make my mind up about the Finale – more Shostakovich than Mahler? It begins with a grotesque march which, when the music settles, becomes angst-ridden. Towards the end everything dies away. The fifth movement, a linked Epilogue, brings a serene calm of consolation and peace to the end of the Symphony. Those bells from the first movement make a final appearance. This, apparently, is the very first recording of this work.
The composition of the Sinfonia (Symphony No. 3), Op. 63 coincided with the outbreak of war in 1939 and occupied the composer for a year. I found the prevailing mood generally more upbeat than in the previous two symphonies. A solo oboe introduces a pastoral melody at the beginning, then the music becomes preoccupied, and there’s a sharing out to the various sections of the orchestra. The slow movement is tranquil and is distinguished by a broad Mahlerian melody of heartfelt yearning. The Scherzo is in three sections, the first an abrasive stampede, where declamatory gestures interject above an ostinato bass. There’s a contrasting lighter central section; the movement ends with a deftly orchestrated ‘Variazione’ section. The Finale is a more optimistic and jubilant affair, rhythmically propulsive and buoyant. The Mahlerian big tune puts in an appearance at one point. I have to say that I wasn’t taken with the Op. 63 as much as I was to the Second Symphony, which remains my particular favorite.
The composer was drawn to the work of the Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806), who in effect provided the libretti for Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges and Puccini’s Turandot. He was particular fond of La Donna Serpente, the story of a princess cursed and turned into a snake. Wagner had used it in his early opera Die Feen. Casella was attracted to the magical and comic elements in the story. It eventually became an opera from which he extracted the Symphonic Fragments. These consist of two series: the first dedicated to Fritz Reiner, and the second to Bernardino Molinari. They form a pleasing contrast to the more heavily laden symphonies. Displaying a wealth of ingenuity and invention, they are brilliantly and imaginatively scored, showcasing orchestral colour at its best.
Coming to Casella’s music for the first time, this has been a wonderful discovery. These works are superbly recorded and the Chandos engineers are to be lauded on achieving a successful balance throughout. The two venues are excellent in every way in conferring warmth and spaciousness. The annotations are well-written and, for me, helpful and informative. Gianandrea Noseda’s passionate commitment to this composer is admirable.