Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Email Password  
Not a subscriber yet?  
Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Don O’Connor
American Record Guide, November 2010

Casella’s Symphony 1 (1905) shows…striking dramatic effects. II is strongly constructed, and it is music of serious emotional fervor with long, sustained melodies. III builds to the main event with…highly effective sul ponticello string passages. The ensuing main theme is one of his most noble inspirations. After a flamboyant development, the music ends in a quiet elegy over bell-like harmonies.

To read complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, November 2010

Well, who knew? Who knew, despite the composer himself retrospectively complaining that his youthful First Symphony was a ‘Russian-Brahms-Enescu’ compound, that it was so enjoyable? It was completed when Casella was twenty-three, in 1906, but other than noting this post-facto writing-off, we can still listen to it with considerable pleasure. Certainly there are Tchaikovskian elements at play and Mussorgskian ones too, most obviously in the more glowering moments of the first movement. But the brisk march theme that is also at work here is finely orchestrated, and fits in well thematically. In fact Casella couldn’t have disliked this symphony as much as he claimed because he liked the slow movement enough to recycle it in this Second Symphony—he could do so with impunity because the earlier work hadn’t been published. It’s warm, lyrical, sharing something of Rachmaninoff’s approach, though there are Balakirev intimations as well. The pounding apex of this movement, with percussion throbbing, is exciting—the tawny brass is also in its element.

Like the opening movement the finale begins with an intense Lento section—oddly sounding a touch like Vaughan Williams. Then we move off into Brucknerian waters. I realise I am actually playing Casella at his own game and suggesting influences, though obviously at least two of the composers cited can’t have been influences on Casella; this is more in the way of trying to suggest what the music actually sounds like. The finale is the most laden, and perhaps in some ways the most intriguing movement. I liked its open air sections, but I also liked its Parsifalian March element too.

So, this is an exciting discovery of a symphony that bears strong traces of late Romantic influence but which is very well orchestrated and manages for quite a bit of the time to absorb those influences to the general good.

The companion work is a very different affair, the Concerto for strings, piano, timpani and percussion Op.69 of 1943. It’s best here to think of contemporaneous works by Honegger and Martinů. The neo-baroque motor is strong and resilient. There’s a powerful Sarabande majoring in coiled lyricism; and then there’s a bristling finale, with brusque writing for the most part but an almost disquietingly quiet and unresolved ending. School of 1943, then—though, as we know, Casella’s position in Mussolini’s Italy was, and remains, highly controversial.

The entertainingly written booklet notes set the seal on an exploratory release that provides the First Symphony with its first ever recording. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under its stylistically acute conductor Francesco La Vecchia plays with whole-hearted conviction and the performances, recorded in two locations six months apart, have been well engineered.

There are two sides to Casella here; the striving, romance-hungry young man weaned on Bruckner and Tchaikovsky and similarly rich milk; and the terse, increasingly astringent older man, searching for verities in the neo-baroque amidst the tumult of war.

Paul A. Snook
Fanfare, November 2010

Of all the Italian composers born toward the end of the 19th century, Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) was the most cosmopolitan in his dogged efforts to drag his country’s music into the 20th century. But before this could start happening sometime around the First World War, he first had to drag himself out of the 19th century, as these two early symphonies (and, to a lesser extent, the much more consistently magisterial Third Symphony, available now on a cpo CD) vividly illustrate. Before he was even 20, Casella had found his way to Paris to study with Fauré (who had little actual impact on his early stylistic development), where he made crucial friendships with Ravel, Enescu, and much later Stravinsky, immersing himself in the embryonic modernist cauldron dominated successively by Rimsky Korsakov, Debussy, Mahler, Florent Schmitt, and eventually the Stravinsky of the Ballets Russes.

As a young man-on-the-make Casella was nothing if not ambitious and, following the decidedly non-operatic examples set by his early mentor Giuseppe Martucci, during his 20s he set about producing two gigantic symphonies. The sprawling, heaven-storming, three-quarter-hour-long First Symphony of 1905–06 is a rich amalgam of all the varied influences he had been exposed to up to that date. Yet, in spite of all these seemingly contradictory elements, at times the work almost seems to hang together by dint of Casella’s fiercely competitive drive and personality, typified by its dark undercurrents and ecstatic lyricism. Following Casella’s lifelong penchant for a tripartite scheme, the work opens with an aggressively dramatic and mercurial first movement with countless changes in tempo markings; this is by far the most imposing of the three, where the Russian overtones are colorfully strongest. The Adagio middle movement offers a kind of melancholic, introspective interlude before the onslaught of the excessively Mahlerian 20-minute finale, where the main theme of the first movement returns in force—the Franckian cyclical residue—before resolving into an exquisitely moving quiet coda dominated by a solo cello. This First Symphony is a young man’s tempestuous and resolute self-assertion and challenge, and as such this premiere recording represents an important discographical document poised on the cusp of the late-Romantic and early-Modernist mindsets.

Written nearly 40 years later, the 1943 Concerto or Strings, Piano, Timpani, and Percussion reveals Casella in full maturity, having passed through the purifying fires of 1920s neoclassicism. This pungently motoric, contrapuntal piece is bursting with Casella’s characteristic energy and dispatch, displaying a kind of dry, offhand self-assurance and detachment typical of the many concertante works he produced between the wars. However, Casella was occasionally capable of plumbing tragic depths, as evidenced in such disparate works as the War Pages (1916) and the Elegia Eroica (1917)—the latter to be included in a future Naxos release—and the great 1944 Missa Solemnis, one of his final utterances. This performance of the concerto is on a par with the 1990s Dynamic collection that also featured the Concerto for Piano Trio and Orchestra and the Cello Concerto, both major works from his prolific 1930s.

This release is the first of four Naxos plans to devote to the orchestral Casella, and they have selected able collaborators in La Vecchia and the Rome Symphony Orchestra, who provide impassioned but idiomatically precise interpretations.

Seemingly hopping on the Casella bandwagon (such as it is), Chandos has released a stunning first recording of the Second Symphony, written just a few years (1908–10) after the First. Similar in its mammoth 45-minute-plus duration, this equally titanic work is even more obviously worshipful of Mahler, whose one-and-only Parisian performance of the “Resurrection” was engineered by the ever-resourceful Casella. Dedicated to his close friend Enescu (whose own early symphonic efforts show a comparable orientation), the Second indicates a noticeable growth in Casella’s sense of structure, coherence, and proportion over his earlier attempt but its overall tone is still smothered in the effluvia of late-Romantic grandiosity. Among its notable incidental virtues is an irresistibly tuneful scherzo cast in a tarantella-like mode that foreshadows important elements in Casella’s later development. After much turbulent agonizing, the symphony concludes with a transcendently redemptive coda which, once again, owes quite a bit to the manner of his hero Mahler.

As a wonderfully contrasting companion piece, Chandos gives us what is probably the first digital recording in more than a decade of one of the composer’s most characteristic pieces—the five-movement divertimento-like Scarlattiana. By this time—1926—Casella had long abandoned his early heroic-romantic leanings and had begun, like many of his contemporaries, an investigation of his country’s rich Baroque heritage as part of his energetic campaign to create an authentic Italian Modernism. This delectable work for piano and orchestra—a precursor of the many concertante pieces from the 20s and 30s—embodies qualities of wit and humor (evident in some of his theatrical scores such a The Jar and La Donna Serpente) almost totally lacking in his symphonies, because, even though the themes are Scarlatti’s, their treatment is invariably and unmistakably Casella’s.

Gianandrea Noseda, who has already recorded several excellent programs of 20th-century Italian masters for Chandos, shows himself here to be equally adept and idiomatic in dealing with these two dramatically opposed aspects of Casella’s composing evolution. And, of course, both the virtuoso BBC Philharmonic and the impeccable Chandos engineers are in customary top form

Naxos has announced three additional Casella releases, including the Second and Third Symphonies. It is astonishing to realize we will soon have two alternate versions on disc of all three symphonies, plus yet another Scarlattiana. Naxos will also give us premiere recordings of significant works such as Elegia Eroica, Notte di magio, and A nolte alta. However, there are several other major Casella works still awaiting premiere recordings, i.e., the aforementioned War Pages; Introduction, Aria, and Toccata; and a tremendous concerto for full orchestra. And we could do with new recordings of both the violin and organ concertos.

Meanwhile, both these releases are outstanding additions to the recorded repertoire of 20th-century music and as such are highly recommended to all collectors.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, October 2010

There is great tragedy here. The war years left a host of musical talents damaged by their very human inabilities to deal with the nightmare that was Europe during the war. The stain of fascism darkened the reputation of greater artists than Italian composer Alfredo Cassella, but this disc illustrates how tragic it remains that it almost completely obliterated him. These are both exceptional pieces of music—the early, Romantic Symphony no. 1 in B-Minor from 1905–06 and the superb 1943 “Concerto for Strings, Percussion, Timpani and Percussion” is a more than honorable descendant of Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” and Bohuslav Martinů’s “Double Concerto for two string orchestra, piano and timpani.” The critical cant on Cassella is that notwithstanding his political collaborations, he was a stylistic will-o’-the-wisp, susceptible to prevailing influences whatever they be. Perhaps so, but there are moments of extraordinary beauty and even majesty in this music that virtually beg for wholesale reassessment.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, October 2010

CASELLA, A.: Symphony No. 1 / Concerto for Piano, Timpani, Percussion and Strings (Scuccuglia, Ceravolo, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia) 8.572413
CASELLA, A.: Symphony No. 2 / A notte alta (Sun Hee You, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia) 8.572414

The launch of a series devoted to the orchestral music of Alfredo Casella

I have long been—somewhat unfashionably, I suspect—an admirer of Alfredo Casella’s music (if not the man—see David Gallagher’s informative booklet-notes). Something of a stylistic changeling, Casella’s music itself is full of vim and originality, evident from the first two discs of Naxos’s enterprising series. These feature his earliest and last orchestral pieces—the First Symphony (1905) and Concerto for Strings, Piano and Timpani (1943)—as well as his earliest concertante work, the autobiographical “musical poem” A notte alta (“The Deepest Night”, 1917), inspired by his affair with his student Yvonne Müller, who became his second wife in 1921—the year A notte alta was orchestrated. Strongly characterised night music, it is splendidly rendered by young Korean pianist Sun Hee You, a graduate of the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome, where Casella taught. The musical language of the Concerto is in marked contrast, with neo-Bachian driving rhythms, angular melodies and freer harmonies bordering on the atonal. The scoring recalls Martinů’s great Double Concerto (1938) and was also commissioned by Paul Sacher. One of Casella’s subtlest creations, it receives a fine performance from the Rome Symphony Orchestra and Francesco La Vecchia, albeit not the tautest I have heard.

The symphonies present a very different Casella: boldly late-Romantic, rich in youthful exuberance and burgeoning orchestral promise. Structurally and stylistically, the First sprawls through the gamut of influences the 22-year-old composer had encountered by 1905, from Brahms to Wagner via Bruckner, Strauss and the Russian nationalists. These last loom large in the Second (1910), as does Mahler, but overall No 2 is a more controlled work, recycling the First’s slow movement, rescored with an extra bar in the middle.

Had Casella maintained this same rate of symphonic production throughout his career (No 3, to follow on Volume 3, only appeared in 1940), he would easily have overhauled Malipiero’s tally of 11 and might have become Italy’s answer to another close contemporary, Myaskovsky (who started his symphonic trail three years after Casella). But let’s be be grateful for what we have and to Naxos for a most worthwhile series.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, October 2010

Starter question for 10—can you name any Italian orchestral composers of the early to mid 20th century? Ottorino Respighi comes to mind, as do Gian Francesco Malipiero, Ildebrando Pizzetti and—thanks in part to those enterprising souls at Naxos—we can now add Alfredo Casella. This recording of the latter’s Symphony No. 1, a world premiere, is just part of a projected series devoted to Casella’s œuvre; the most recent instalment—which includes Symphony No 2—is available on 8.572414...At first glance, Casella’s enrolment at the Paris Conservatoire—Gabriel Fauré was one of his teachers—and his admiration for Debussy might suggest strong links with French music of the period. However, the First Symphony, which dates from 1905, doesn’t strike me as particularly Gallic, either in sensibility or sound world; indeed, Casella is quoted in the liner-notes, where he dismisses the work as a potpourri of Borodin, Brahms and Enescu. These influences may be there, but they aren’t striking. Perhaps it’s the Italian band and conductor who are to blame, as they add a touch of southern warmth to this absorbing score.

True, the brooding start to the Lento seems Russianate, but then there’s an arresting lyricism in the strings and an orchestral blush that speaks more of Richard Strauss. As for the Roman orchestra they sound full-bodied and precise, climaxes expanding with plenty of weight and impact. Musically the score may seem a tad threadbare at times, but it’s well shaped and convincingly paced. Initial impressions suggest this is not the youthful indiscretion it first seems; in fact, the Adagio—reprised in the Second Symphony—is rather lovely. After a quiet, rather unsettling theme at the outset there are some melting string tunes—just listen to the passage that begins at 3:44. It really is luminous, heart-stopping music, most eloquently phrased.

The final movement, like the first, is a dark-toned Lento, the grumble of percussion at the start thrillingly caught. And, for the first time, there’s a real sense of nobility, a Wagnerian amplitude if you like, the muted brass simply splendid. Moreover, there’s a momentum here—listen out for that recurring, jaunty little tune—and a firm sense of purpose, which ensures that any structural weaknesses are artfully concealed. Such advocacy augurs well for the rest of this series; indeed, having heard both Noseda and La Vecchia’s accounts of the Second Symphony I can assure you the latter yields little or nothing to the former in terms of execution...

The concerto is a wartime work, written while the composer was recovering from a serious illness. The soft edges of the symphony are replaced here by a harder, more muscular idiom, which includes strong, uncompromising rhythms. There’s plenty of bite to the strings, ever-present timps commendably crisp and clear, the Sarabande more lyrical—and inward—than one might expect. The piano part is carefully woven into the musical fabric, which only shows signs of fraying in the latter half of this movement. The brisk, martial opening to the final Allegro—snare drums very much in evidence—takes us back to the sinewy world of the first. It’s well played and tightly argued, the muted march coloured by the gentlest of taps on the tam-tam.

So, a most encouraging start to this new cycle which...will surely bring this music back into the mainstream, where it belongs. It seems entirely right that La Vecchia and his Roman band are leading the charge; goodness knows, they play this music with verve and vision—and that’s just what it needs

Nice one, Naxos.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, September 2010

CASELLA, A.: Symphony No. 1 / Concerto for Piano, Timpani, Percussion and Strings (Scuccuglia, Ceravolo, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia) 8.572413
CASELLA, A.: Symphony No. 2 / A notte alta (Sun Hee You, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia) 8.572414

These are the first two of a series of four CDs from Naxos devoted to the music of the early 20th century Italian composer Alfredo Casella. Casella isn’t as obscure as some of the composers Naxos has offered on CD, but he hasn’t received the attention he warrants, and this series should help that. One writer felt Casella’s music sounded like Borodin meets Richard Strauss, but he is in fact more original than that. Although it’s most satisfying to hear new music to one’s ears—such as Casella's—that is tonal, tuneful, and scored in a colorful manner.

Both of these symphonies are receiving their world premiere recordings herewith. Casella’s First dates from early on (he lived until 1947)—1906, and was his very first major composition. The Russian influence is strong and also that of Enescu, but in many sections one feels the Germanic touches of both R. Strauss and Wagner. The symphony shows considerable self-confidence though its composer was only 23 years old at the time. The work is in three movements and follows the cyclical structure of Cesar Franck, using imaginative orchestration. Casella was a promoter of Mahler’s music, and in the last of the movements one might even hear a bit of Brucknerian sonorities. A good ear might be able to pick up a hint of a main theme from Shostakovich’s (yet-to-be-composed) Leningrad Symphony, plus a theme that sounds a lot like John Williams’ theme for Jurassic Park!

The Concerto is in a neo-Baroque style, as well as emulating some Bach and even 12-tone rows here and there. It was written in the mid-40s, Casella having strong concerns over living in Rome under Nazi occupation (his wife was both French and Jewish). It has some similarities to other wartime string works of that period by Bartok, Stravinsky, Frank Martin and others.

Casella’s Second Symphony is in four rather than three movements, and if the third sounds somewhat familiar, it is because the composer liked it so much in his First Symphony that he slightly rewrote it and included it again in his Second Symphony! The work was never published in Casella’s lifetime. Here the Mahler influence comes on strong, with tolling bells just like that composer’s Second Symphony. He also directly quotes the march theme from the finale of Mahler’s Second. Casella said that discovering Mahler’s symphonies was the crucial event of his artistic education.

The second movement is however more redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev than Mahler. There are repetitive percussive rhythms in the movement that almost sound like a milder version of Mossolov’s Iron Foundry. The work’s Finale, by far the longest movement, apes Mahler in the general overall mood of moving from a brooding darkness to a colorful and triumphant finish in C Major, though not with the exuberance of most of Mahler’s finales. The 21-minute second Casella work here—which began in 1917 as a piano solo—is translated as In Deepest Night, and was “inspired by emotional events in my personal life” according to the composer. That would be his relationship with a Parisian student who was later to become his second wife. The piano introduces separate themes for the man and the woman in the score. The work’s dark sonorities show the lovers parting at the end. Both recordings were just made last year and are of high quality for standard CD format.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2010

The Italian  composer, Alfredo Casella, is one of its greatest enigmas in the history of music, a fact that Naxos promises to display in a series of four releases. In his music, thoughts, words and deeds, Casella was totally inconsistent. A prodigiously gifted child born in 1883, he found himself sent to Paris as a student at the Conservatoire where his much revered tutor was Fauré. He claimed he absorbed his musical influences from Ravel and Debussy, and more than a little from the young Stravinsky. The first disc places this life in context by including his first and last orchestral works, the early symphony a student work full of Russian influences. In later life he was to reject it, though in this long and sprawling score the young man had found some good material to work with, the typically melancholic opening Slav theme coming straight from the time of Mussorgsky. The finale alone lasts for over twenty minutes. Often bleak, it shows an ability to orchestrate in a way that captures our attention. Indeed had the score been written in mid-19th century Russia, it would have found a ready market. Thirty-seven years later Casella was wearing an overcoat of modernity, though the man inside was much the same. Now much influenced by Honegger, just take a few moments at random and you will believe the Concerto was by him. Strong rhythms, good thematic material skilfully orchestrated, it is a score easy to enjoy. Now dying and in the midst of war, the ending comes in sadness and hopelessness. The performances are, I am sure, all Casella could have wished for, the soloists from the orchestra are good, and in Francesco La Vecchia the composer has a dedicated advocate.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group