Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Eric J. Bruskin
Fanfare, March 2007

Here we go again. A good man spends his life writing music for the love of it, putting bread on the table by teaching harmony and counterpoint at a small local institution. During his lifetime, he gets a few performances, writes a bassoon sonata that's a modest hit among bassoonists, and then spends 25 years writing an opera, which gets two performances. The good man dies at 80, unknown outside of local musical circles. A few years after his death, his music is finally recorded.

Romeo Cascarino was a fine but almost completely unknown mid-century American composer in the great Copland-Barber-Bernstein tradition who wrote delicious music obviously meant to be enjoyed rather than edified. His inspirations may be a little musty (Greek mythology, 19th-century romantic poetry) but they provide ample raw material for rich music that runs the emotional gamut from, say, C to V. (The wildest extremes are absent from his gracious music.) He's not Beethoven, but by not trying to be profound, he manages to avoid writing the kind of pedantic, grey music that makes the music of many mid-century Americans more dutiful than beautiful. The music on this CD is beautiful from beginning to end, some of it exceptionally so. Its clarity, wit, and unabashed lyricism put me in mind of Francis Poulenc, although the sound is more 1950s Leonard Bernstein (including the more symphonic theater music), with a splash of the more overt populism of some Copland or, say, Morton Gould. Some of it is so tasty I found myself listening to it two or three times in one sitting.

Tom DiNardo's brisk, informative notes include a rather concise biography of Cascarino in which even the high points are modest. Born in Philadelphia (in the venerable Italian community of "South Philly"), he was an autodidact. At 17, he "was invited to Tanglewood after Aaron Copland looked at some of his early works." (Just looked at? This is where the standard issue composer bio says "was impressed by.") In 1945, while still in the army, he won a prize in the George Gershwin Memorial Contest. (I assume that had it been first prize, it would have been so mentioned.) This was a small contest sponsored by two Jewish organizations, although later winners included Peter Mennin and Harold Shapero. A 1947 Bassoon Sonata for (hometown) Philadelphia Orchestra bassoonist Sol Schoenbach once circulated on a Columbia recording, and he received two Guggenheim Fellowships. He refused commercial music work, and remained loyal to a low-paying local college despite having better offers. His first orchestral score, the ballet Prospice--which, along with everything else on this CD except for Pygmalion, is recorded here for the first time--was only ever performed in a two-piano arrangement. The later Pygmalion was "intended" for a ballet, with a libretto that "would appeal to a choreographer like Anthony Tudor, whom [Cascarino] greatly admired." This reads like a composer whose dreams exceeded his grasp. Cascarino was evidently not naive about this, however; as DiNardo points out, Cascarino described himself as "an idealist, which for me is a realist who's learned what to live for." But the whole story seems rather sad.

Well, happily both pieces are much, much better works than their performance history intimates. Why any conductor who saw this appealing, lively, vividly drawn, and wonderfully scored music would not want to perform it is beyond me. Pygmalion is, indeed, the pick of the litter, as its prior recording suggests, although it appears to have been an extremely modest recording from the 1950s or 1960s, based on a fuzzy photo of its cover that I found somewhere in the musty corners of the Internet. No performers were indicated. The rich harmony, tidy orchestration, and stateliness of this music remind me of a John Ireland work. Portrait of Galatea is intended to be more impressionistic, and it is more loosely constructed and not as memorable. Prospice is based on a stiffly proud Browning poem, and is appropriately inspirational.

Cascarino was also commissioned by what DiNardo terms the "Benjamin Tranquil Music Project" which elsewhere is termed the Benjamin Award for Tranquil Music. In either version, it sounds like a parody, but the resulting work, The Acadian Land (based on Longfellow) is, for me, the other high point of this CD. It holds up well after many playings.

Alas, there's nothing from Cascarino's magnum opus, the opera William Penn, based on the life of the Quaker statesman who established Pennsylvania and founded Philadelphia. Cascarino worked on this from. 1950 until 1975, and it was finally staged for two performances at the venerable Academy of Music, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Tom DiNardo (who doesn't credit himself in his booklet notes). Evidently, this CD, too, owes its existence in part to DiNardo's efforts. (Listed as executive producer, he's also the music critic for Philly's "second" newspaper, which doesn't give him as much space as he deserves.)

This CD makes me want to hear more of Cascarino's music. According to DiNardo, the composer's output is small. His dates are 1922-2002, but the music on this CD is mainly for orchestra or chamber orchestra, and spans the years 1945-1960. (The Meditation and Elegy was written for piano in his teens and transcribed for string orchestra in 2000 by one of his pupils.) Did he write any other orchestral music after 1960, or did the opera take up all his energy? Did he write anything after completing the opera in 1975? Is there any chamber music besides the Bassoon Sonata? I wish the booklet notes provided more information. And there's no further information online. I guess I'll just have to check out Cascarino's childhood haunt (and mine), the music division of the Free Library of Philadelphia, whose Fleisher Collection is the world's largest orchestral lending library and holds Cascarino's scores. Regional orchestra conductors: hint hint.

It remains only to praise enterprising conductor JoAnn Falletta for shaping immaculate performances. The orchestra of record is the "Philadelphia Philharmonia" which, as a lifelong Philadelphian, I'd never heard of until I read the note in the booklet that reveals its secret identity as the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, a venerable local organization not to be confused with the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra (which also has done a couple of CDs for Naxos) or the late Philadelphia Chamber Symphony (which did some lovely LPs for RCA in the 1960s). Even though it's a major part of Philadelphia's musical life, the COP has evidently never recorded under its own name. Why they didn't take credit for this CD is beyond me. Except for a couple of minor trumpet slips, the playing is quite fine. The recorded sound is decent, with good orchestral balances. And thank you to Naxos for making it possible for this lovely music to be heard by millions worldwide, even if the composer didn't live to see it happen.

American Record Guide, February 2007

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, October 2006

Here's another great American music discovery from the Naxos folks. Composer Romeo Cascarino was born in Philadelphia in 1922. He was entirely self-taught until the age of seventeen and this probably explains why he has such an individual sound. Highly melodic and late romantic in spirit, his music really flies in the face of all those modern compositions that were being turned out by his contemporaries. Based on a Robert Browning Poem, Prospice dates from 1948 and was one of Romeo's first orchestral works. It's a very lyrical and brilliantly orchestrated ballet that at times seems to owe a debt to Aaron Copland. Pygmalion, another ballet, is based on the Greek legend and was written in 1956. With a quiet almost impressionistic beginning, it works itself up to a frenzied central dance section which gradually dissolves as the piece ends much like it began. Four additional works are also included. Portrait of Galatea, written four years before the preceding, is an adagio inspired by the female protagonist in the Pygmalion story. There's an exoticism here that may call to mind the music of Miklos Rozsa. Blades of Grass from 1945 is a very moving tribute to all those who've died in battle. The predominance of the English horn makes this piece all the more poignant. Meditation and Elegy is a much later reworking for strings of two youthful piano pieces inspired by Poe's Annabel Lee. These two tiny gems certainly rank with the best American miniatures. This compelling concert concludes with The Acadian Land. Written in 1960 and inspired by Longfellow's poem, impressionism is once again very much in evidence. Could that be Charles Tomlinson Griffes we hear lurking in the eaves? The composer would have been delighted with these outstanding performances by the Philadelphia Philharmonia under JoAnn Falletta, and the recorded sound is very good.

Kevin Sutton
MusicWeb International, October 2006

Romeo Cascarino was born in Philadelphia in 1922. Self-taught until the age of seventeen, his early influences in music came mostly from the operas that he attended with his father, a tailor-cum-dramatic tenor. Aaron Copland reviewed some of his early scores and invited him to Tanglewood for further study. Unabashedly devoted to tonality and to the beauty that could be created through the medium of the orchestra; Cascarino’s orchestral works reflect sensitivity to color and are indebted somewhat to Copland’s Americana style.

A somewhat crippling modesty and lack of self-promotion kept Cascarino’s music out of the limelight for most of his career. An avid reader and lover of literature, the composer was particularly fond of Greek myth. It is from this passion that Pygmalion and Portrait of Galatea were born. Lush orchestral textures and large, sweeping bands of sound define both works. They are rhapsodic in their nature and in spite of some pungent dissonances; they contain some very beautiful writing, somewhat reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s shorter orchestral pieces.

Inspired by a Carl Sandburg poem, Blades of Grass is elegiac, with a mournful English Horn solo, lovingly played by Geoffry Deemer. Composed right after the end of the Second World War, the work reflects the tragedy of war’s destruction and death. Next follows Prospice, Cascarino’s first orchestral work, originally commissioned as a ballet. Most performances during the composer’s lifetime were in its two-piano version, and this disc contains the first recording of it in its original form for orchestra.

I must confess that by the time I got to this fourth piece, I was growing weary of slow. Although there is much beauty to be enjoyed in these works, Cascarino seemed to overly favor slow tempi and somewhat lugubrious harmonic rhythm. The faster sections in Prospice were a welcome relief. Still, I must point out that in spite of their being well-crafted and carefully orchestrated, this composer’s works tend to be a bit lacking in variety of styles and ideas.

The Meditation and Elegy is based on Poe’s poem Annabel Lee and began life as piano music. It is truly beautiful, and wistfully brief, but again, it’s slow. Rounding out the program is The Acadian Land this time inspired by the poetry of Longfellow. It is full of the rich textures and delicious harmonies of the other works, but the lack of tempo variety, while it doesn’t kill the music, certainly makes this disc one that you would want to sample one work at a time rather than all at one sitting.

The Philadelphia Philharmonia is a group assembled for this project, and is ably conducted by JoAnn Falletta, of right reputation as one of the major talents of the younger generation of American conductors. She makes a good showing of some decidedly second-tier music.

This is, in all honesty, worth investigation, and although this is not music that is bound for a lasting place in the concert repertoire, the occasional performance makes for a refreshing change of pace.

Howard Gensler
Philadelphia Daily News, September 2006

Daily News classical-music writer Tom Di Nardo has long championed the music of South Philly-born composer Romeo Cascarino (1922-2002), and a new CD from Naxos, executive- produced by Di Nardo, offers world-premiere recordings of five Cascarino pieces.

It's a shame Cascarino didn't live long enough to hear most of these lush, melodic orchestral works recorded - or even played. But all four, plus two chamber pieces, conducted by Buffalo Philharmonic maestra JoAnn Falletta, can finally can be found on this disc (due out today) from Naxos' American Classics line.

Recorded at Germantown's First Presbyterian Church in 2005, Falletta leads a full orchestra of top area musicians, named the Philadelphia Philharmonia just for this project.

Di Nardo hopes the recording establishes the self-taught Cascarino on an international level as a major American composer.

Falletta, who has led the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann, will return to guest-conduct the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia in January.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group