About this Recording
8.572416 - CASELLA, A.: Notte di maggio / Cello Concerto / Scarlattiana (Andreini, Noferini, Sun-Hee You, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
English  Italian 

Alfredo Casella (1883–1947):
Notte di maggio, Op. 20 • Cello Concerto, Op. 58 • Scarlattiana, Op. 44


‘I’ve written something new, a setting for voice and orchestra of Carducci’s Notte di maggio (from his Rime nuove), and I’m really really pleased with it. I think it’s my best work. The most dissonant, too. I’ve finally managed to combine all twelve notes of the chromatic scale—you’ll love the poetic effect.’

And Alfredo Casella, writing to his composer colleague Gian Francesco Malipiero in August 1913, with what Malipiero called ‘almost childish delight’ in his new chord, scribbled an illustration of it: a pile of perfect fourths four and a half octaves high (‘I can’t play it on the piano with just two hands…’). Casella was not the first to compose a twelve-note chord: Alban Berg did so the previous year in the third of his Altenberg Lieder; but it was a far more revolutionary step for an Italian pupil of Fauré than for an Austrian pupil of Schoenberg: the first outpouring of what the leading Italian critic Massimo Mila aptly called ‘that astonishing eruption of expressionistic lava known as Casella’s second style’. It has become something of a cliché since the early 1900s to categorise a composer’s output into three stylistic periods, but back then Casella seemed happy enough to apply the classification to himself: in the 1920s and 1930s he repeatedly referred to having ‘reached my third style’, identifying the Concerto for string quartet, Op. 40 (1923–24) as the point of arrival, ‘the first work in which I have truly achieved the goal I have been striving towards for fifteen years.’ Many commentators, even those as perceptive as Mila, have followed Casella’s lead in dividing his music into ‘three manners’, though John C. G. Waterhouse, the English expert on Italian music of the period, cautioned against seeing this as any more than ‘a useful oversimplification’. Waterhouse pointed out elements of ‘Casella’s stylistic continuity’, musical characteristics common to all of the composer’s supposedly different manners, while finding the socalled ‘first manner’ less an actual style than a search for one, ‘a time when heterogeneous influences converged and interacted’: witness Casella’s first two symphonies [Naxos 8.572413 & 8.572414]. And in Casella’s final years Waterhouse heard ‘signs of further compositional developments, perhaps towards a “fourth manner” which never fully materialised’, suggested above all by quasi-Schoenbergian twelve-note passages in the Concerto, Op. 69 [Naxos 8.572413], and in the last work Casella completed before his death, the Missa solemnis ‘pro pace’ of 1944. But Waterhouse, too, recognised that twice, either side of the First World War, Casella’s music was shaken by sudden, radical change. This recording represents both these transformations.

The touchpaper for the first upheaval was lit just a few months before Casella completed Notte di maggio (‘A Night in May’). On the night of 29 May 1913, apostrophised by Casella as ‘a decisive date in the history of music’, the Champs-Elysées theatre in Paris (Casella’s home city since 1896) staged the notorious première of a piece ‘comparable in historic importance to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. ‘I would really have liked to hear my music,’ Casella reports Stravinsky lamenting after ‘shrieks, whistles and all kinds of racket’ resounded practically throughout. Malipiero, who was only there because Casella twisted his arm, said that Stravinsky’s amazing music ‘woke him from a long and dangerous lethargy’. Indeed, so many young musicians claimed to have had their lives changed that night, it seems hard to believe there was room left for catcallers at all. Casella was no exception, though for many years he could not quite admit it to himself: ‘I can honestly say that I would have written Notte di maggio the same even if I had never heard or seen any Stravinsky scores’. Only in the autobiography he wrote in his mid-fifties did he confess that Notte di maggio was influenced by both Stravinsky—‘above all, the Stravinsky of The Rite’—and Debussy, who, Casella tells us, had recently become a close acquaintance of his, and praised Notte di maggio highly. We might add the influences of Bartók, whose music Casella had just discovered, and the Stravinsky of the extraordinary short cantata Zvezdolikiy (‘The King of the Stars’, 1911): though Casella could not have heard it—it was not performed until 1939—he could certainly have seen the score, since Stravinsky sent a copy to Debussy as soon as he finished it, and it was published by mid-1913.

Even so, we can still agree today with Casella’s consistent assessment of Notte di maggio as one of his finest and most original works. The orchestration abounds in imagination: brass and strings use mutes almost constantly (the oboe family need them too), with strings often playing on the bridge or fingerboard, as well as glissandos and harmonics. Casella superimposes instruments in layers, he superimposes different keys and piles of perfect fourths (not least in that twelve-note chord, a crescendo and decrescendo in the strings at 8.07–8.16)—ideas he developed further in wartime works, above all the Elegia eroica [Naxos 8.572415]. The vocal line, as John Waterhouse notes, is ‘sensitive to every nuance of the text’, with ‘no leaps greater than a fifth, so that the song has a strangely numbed quality, admirably suited to the words’—albeit ‘almost more lugubrious than the poem itself’. Certainly Casella saturates his setting in the atmosphere of the chilling memory that blows through the sixth verse, the musical climax; and the quiet, enigmatic final chord—a triad on B with major thirds (D sharp) low in the texture, minor thirds (D) higher up, plus C sharp, E sharp, G and G sharp—‘sums up with remarkable exactness the underlying mood of the whole piece’.

Waterhouse also draws a suggestive parallel with visual art, comparing ‘the uneasy, ominous stillness’ of Notte di maggio and other kindred Casella works such as A notte alta [Naxos 8.572414] to contemporary paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, including Melancholy and mystery of a street (1914) and The disquieting muses (1916). Furthermore, ‘Casella’s second period coincided exactly with De Chirico’s “Metaphysical painting” phase. Both artists evolved disturbing, enigmatic styles shortly before the First World War when living abroad, combining foreign influences with nostalgic allusions to Italy; both later returned to Italy, and around 1920 they almost simultaneously abandoned their wartime manners, turning for inspiration to the art of the Italian past.’ Casella came home to Italy in 1915 after almost twenty years in France, but his second stylistic transformation was not immediate; he credited it above all to two powerful stimuli during a virtual creative silence between 1920 and 1923, one being precisely his close contact with Italian painters including De Chirico and Felice Casorati (who both later painted notable portraits of the composer): ‘in them the spirit of our great masters seems to live again through the most modern techniques’. And travelling in Tuscany in springtime, Casella said, ‘I learned that an Italian can never be an impressionist, and that our art shares the transparent clarity of the Tuscan landscape’. His ideal became ‘a music unquestionably Italian in idiom: strong, well-constructed, clear, steeped in the sunshine which moulds our life, and in which one senses no foreign influences, but rather the ancestral shades of Frescobaldi, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Scarlatti or Rossini.’

Scarlattiana epitomises this new aspiration; and if Notte di maggio reveals the ‘vein of tragedy’ which Massimo Mila traced through Casella’s work—not least the music on the first two CDs in this Naxos series [8.572413 & 8.572414]—in this ‘Divertimento’ we meet the composer Casorati famously characterised as ‘Casella the optimist’. So sit back and enjoy the sunshine, as Casella emerges from the shadow of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella in another of his self-selected ‘most important works’—a joyous, seamless juxtaposition and blend of over eighty different themes (lightly 1920sified) from Domenico Scarlatti’s more than five hundred ‘miraculous’ keyboard sonatas; and of the small orchestra (32 players, including castanets to evoke Scarlatti’s years in Spain) with the piano: less a conventional soloist than first among equals.

By the mid-1930s Casella’s ‘third style’ had crystallised (solidified?) into something wholly personal but perhaps disappointingly predictable, as substantial three-part orchestral works rolled off the composing table at regular intervals, each with two fast pieces flanking a slow central movement in three beats to the bar. Rejecting comparisons with Stravinsky’s so-called ‘neoclassicism’, Casella said he aimed to write music ‘baroque in its monumentality, inspired by the magnificence of the baroque in Rome [where he now lived], with its sense of freedom, fantasy and violent contrast, and its feeling for relief and chiaroscuro—directly descended from the greatest ancient Roman art’.

The Cello Concerto of 1934–35, which precedes Scarlattiana on this recording, is a typical such triptych (running without a break), and merits at least some of the credit Casella claimed for it in his autobiography a few years later: ‘the balance between cello and orchestra is one of the greatest difficulties a composer has to face, and I think I cracked it. This problem had interested me for years, and I was exceptionally well equipped to solve it because I came from a family of cellists and studied the instrument myself for several years as a boy.’ Casella’s grandfather Pietro, a friend of Paganini, was a gifted cellist and so were all three of his sons: Cesare, Gioacchino and Casella’s father Carlo, who had a concerto dedicated to him by the great cellist Alfredo Piatti, Casella’s godfather. ‘The Cello Concerto’s central aria seems to me one of my best melodies,’ Casella added, ‘and the finale deserves the name I gave it in an interview, “the flight of the improved bumblebee”.’ ‘Almost childish delight’ in his own creation again? ‘One of the reproaches most often levelled at me concerns my supposed lack of modesty,’ Casella admitted. ‘It is true that, if I feel myself very small in comparison with Verdi or Bach, I find myself very great in comparison with some of my enemies. But I would add that, however immodest I may seem, I have never lacked a virtue I consider infinitely more important: complete humility in the sight of music—a humility that increases every day in my constant striving for perfection.’

David Gallagher

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