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Paul A. Snook
Fanfare, January 2011

Now that we have a more than respectable reading of Casella’s overheated Second Symphony on Chandos, the primary interest in this release—the second in Naxos’s projected Casella orchestral cycle—is the premiere recording of one of the strangest and thus largely uncharacteristic works in his catalog, A notte alta (In Deepest Night) of 1917. Written first for solo piano, then orchestrated a few years later, this 21-minute work is a kind of symphonic poem for piano and orchestra—in the composer’s own words, the “only programmatic work” he ever attempted. The music and scenario were inspired by the composer’s romantic infatuation with a piano student who was eventually to become his second wife. The music is suffused with a dour, forbidding atmosphere that annotator David Gallagher chooses to describe as “expressionistic,” though there is little of the type of chromatic Angst identified with the Second Vienna School. The style of writing is closer to a variant of Impressionism that Gallagher astutely likens to that of Charles Koechlin—at least in his early period—who was a fellow student of Casella’s in Fauré’s classes. In any case, it makes for a very moodily evocative and compelling score fraught with brooding soliloquizing, which graphically represents the transitional phase in Casella’s now accelerated evolution to a solid neobaroque Modernism in the early 1920s. In fact, later issues in this Naxos series will offer several other first recordings of music from this very interesting period.

As to this particular performance of the Second Symphony, suffice it to note that each of its four movements is considerably longer here than on the Chandos version. Whether this is due to conductor La Vecchio’s decision to wallow a little more in the score’s Mahlerian morasses or due to the orchestra’s professional conservatism, it is impossible to be sure. But, as in their Naxos recording of Casella’s First Symphony, there is no doubting the full commitment of everyone involved, matched by a bright but broad-based acoustic from the Italian engineers. Of course, the sudden and surprising advent of alternate recordings of two of these early symphonies of Casella’s has got to be a reflection of the importance of his later accomplishments both as a composer and an advocate in the development of modern Italian music. He was not really a seasoned symphonist, though a case can be made for the power of the Third Symphony (first available on cpo but about to appear in this series as well).

At the bargain price, A notte alta makes this disc an indispensable one.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, December 2010

You need to make time for Alfredo Casella—especially his symphonies. In recent times they have been coming out almost monthly—and there is no anniversary this year for him! In recent months I have heard but not reviewed various of his symphonies. There’s the First Symphony, written when the composer was a mere 22 years old, in this Naxos series (8.572413). Do not forget the Second Symphony recorded by Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos (CHAN10605) in a somewhat tighter version than this, and the Third Symphony on CPO conducted by Alun Francis (777 265-2). At fifty-five minutes the Second is the longest but not by much. Previously we occasionally heard Casella’s Paganiniana or Serenata—for example on Naxos 8.553706 but the symphonies almost never. Now in the excellent 20th Century Italian Music series from Naxos we have four Casella recordings all conducted by Francesco La Vecchia.

Casella laboured tirelessly to achieve a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony in Paris. The work was over a decade old by 1910 when it was heard but it was a personal triumph both for Casella and Mahler who had agreed to perform some of the Italian’s works as soon as he could. Mahler’s sudden death in 1911 was a shock to Casella and a huge set-back. His own Second Symphony is much influenced by Mahler. David Gallagher’s informative booklet notes quotes one Quirin Principe, an Italian scholar, who said that the first movement was “almost pure Mahler”. Gallagher, and for that matter myself, do not really go along with that. Nevertheless there are certain shared characteristics.

The first movement is in one great dramatic sweep. There is even a transformed March quotation from Mahler 2 and right from the start we hear tolling bells. But there are also some calmer passages scored in chamber music manner despite the huge orchestral forces demanded. The second movement is even more powerful and at times reminded me of aspects of Mahler 7 which, Gallagher tells us, Casella had been asked by the composer to arrange for piano duet. It also has a distinctly Russian feel which marks out the score in many places. Casella had met both Rimsky and Balakirev and knew how Rimsky orchestrated. Indeed he had orchestrated Balakirev’s Islamey much to the Russian’s satisfaction apparently. This is a colourful movement and acts as a Scherzo.

The slow and expressive third movement which, like the second also begins with a Mahlerian timpani call, has been transported straight from the First Symphony but with the addition of one central bar and some altered orchestral touches more in Mahler’s style. Gallagher comments that “the musical material seems ill at ease in its new clothes” but I didn’t feel that was the case. It works well.

The fourth movement is mostly reminiscent of some Shostakovich-like march or I should say Mahlerian march but then Shostakovich was an admirer of Mahler. There are lyrical heart-on-sleeve passages which are almost Tchaikovskian in their rich colourings. I have to say that this movement is ‘more mouth than trousers’ for most of its course, but it did not prevent me from generally enjoying the symphony as a whole. Of the three the Third Symphony still seems to me the most arresting. If I have given you the impression that Casella’s Second is a bit of a ‘dog’s dinner’ than I am not too far off an accurate description but don’t let this put you off. You will, I’m sure, be often excited and carried away by its power and forceful exhilaration. This is, after all, young man’s music—Casella was about 25 when he started it.

Whereas Chandos couple their version of the symphony with the rather insipid Scarlattiana, Naxos has the extraordinary A notte alta—a much more interesting work. Scored for piano and orchestra with significant percussion it will almost come as a shock when compared with the Symphony. If I tell you that its ‘impressionist’ opening (not an adequate description really) reminded me of Schoenberg Op. 16 no. 4 ‘Farben’ from the Orchestral Pieces then you might grasp the sound-world. The booklet notes mention the influence of Koechlin, who was a fellow pupil in Fauré classes and of Ghedini whom I don’t know. It’s also worth adding that there is nothing quite like this music. Even more odd is that having started life as a solo piano work Casella orchestrated it apparently whilst on honeymoon with his second wife Yvonne. This is Casella’s ‘Dark night of the soul’ and the night is icy and insensible. The programme does not stop there because there is a male figure—the grave and pensive music—and a female one—gentle and capricious. After about fifteen minutes there is “a violent eruption” and the music dies back into its bitonal musings. This is a work that should be often played and well known.

Sun Hee You coaxes the most magical and nocturnal sounds from the piano which is beautifully balanced with the subtle, crepuscular and at times even exotic orchestration. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under La Vecchia really captures the mood and play superbly throughout but particularly in this sensitive work.

This is a disc well worth the modest outlay even if you only play A notte alta.

Don O’Connor
American Record Guide, November 2010

Symphony 2 on Naxos gets a broader, more epic interpretation from LaVecchia. This symphony is great enough to support two interpretations; I found much to admire in each. Casella once listed a gag ad: “Two solid symphonies for sale, written in the German Strauss-Mahler tradition. Thorough workmanship. Unoriginality guaranteed.” Other than deleting the word “unoriginality”, I’d run the ad as is.

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

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

In my recent review of Casella’s Symphony No. 1 I applauded Naxos for their part in reviving this composer’s fortunes. And now, having lived with his Symphony No. 2 for several weeks—in both this and the Chandos version from Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Phil—I’m even more convinced that this is a major find. Although Casella’s admiration for Gustav Mahler is evident in the harmonic language and overall structure of this symphony, it’s all too easy to overstate the latter’s influence. In fact, one can just as easily hear Richard Strauss and a slew of Russian Romantics too. That said, his and Mahler’s second symphonies share the same key—C minor—and while Casella’s doesn’t end with a chorus it does have a splendid finale for full orchestra and organ.

Mahler’s shade does indeed haunt the first movement, although perhaps there’s more than a touch of Scriabin in those lush harmonies. And surely those beating timps at 5:32 evoke something of Respighi’s Roman trilogy? Despite these echoes the music is not at all overblown or derivative; it has real individuality and a pleasing economy of style. As for the orchestra, they’re recorded in a wide, deep acoustic that suits the symphony very well, especially in those thumping tuttis. But it’s the quiet, more reflective moments that tend to catch the ear - those rising figures reminiscent of Strauss at his most noble. Structurally, this music hangs together pretty well, but then La Vecchia doesn’t allow it to stutter or stall. Noseda’s no slouch either—he’s a minute faster in this movement—but really I’d be hard-pressed to choose between either at this point.

The second movement is no less impressive, building to a series of vaunting climaxes, the Roman brass and percussion thrillingly caught. And while Naxos recordings can be a little bright and shallow, this one has plenty of warmth and weight. There’s lots of subtlety as well, the jaunty little tune that appears at 4:10 much better balanced—and more characterful—than it is on the Chandos recording. Even the cymbals and bass drum are more tellingly presented on the Naxos disc, which gives La Vecchia a slender lead in this movement at least.

And if you think you’ve heard the Adagio before, it’s because Casella lifted it from his First Symphony, albeit rescored. From its muted—somewhat martial—beginning to its lovely string tunes and beyond, the heart of this symphony beats with a strength and ardour that is glorious to behold. La Vecchia judges the ebb and flow of this music to perfection, the disruptive timps as menacing as one could wish for. And as much as I admire Noseda in this movement—a swift 10:48 to La Veccha’s more leisurely 13:01—that rising theme just doesn’t take wing in the same way it does on the Naxos disc. La Vecchia gives the music plenty of room to breathe, and that really pays dividends here. So, the Romans take the palm once more.

The strange mood of the final movement, that Mahlerian ‘Callots manier’ if you will, is very well conveyed in both readings, but if anything the Italian orchestra sound especially febrile, the brass glowering even more ferociously than they do for Noseda. In many ways the sharper, more analytical Naxos recording serves this music well; indeed, it’s hard to imagine the trudging brass and haloed cymbals better captured than they are here. As for the expansive Epilogo section—cued separately on the Chandos disc—both conductors certainly major on the mistico, the Manchester organ notable for its impact. This echt-Mahlerian apotheosis has all the implacable grandeur of a galleon, its sails unfurling, its prow wheeling towards home. Both Noseda and La Vecchia are fine helmsmen, and steer with authority and skill. Even so, the latter makes the crack of wind in canvas seem even more dramatic, those joyous bells and orchestral billows superbly done.

The filler, A notte alta, is an unsettling—and accomplished—piece of nachtmusik. Right from the startthe shimmer of gongs captures the music’s deeply ambivalent mood. The Korean pianist Sun Hee You is sympathetically recorded, his largely subdued contributions adding splashes of colour to an otherwise dark canvas. This is Casella in a grittier frame of mind—there are searing sonorities and dynamic spikes here—but, as expected, La Vecchia and his Roman band make the most of this diverting oddity.

Time to tot up the scores. It’s a tough call, but La Vecchia’s world premiere recording—taped a year before Noseda’s—really does deserve the winner’s pennant. True, both conductors illuminate the symphony in different ways, but the Naxos version scores very highly in terms of opulence, weight and telling insights. Noseda is just too brisk at times, whereas La Vecchia is more relaxed, bringing out the many felicities of this score. As for fillers, Chandos offer a cracking performance of Scarlattiana, played by Martin Roscoe—but then their disc costs twice as much. Honestly, both recordings are excellent, and I wouldn’t want to be without either.

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.

Bradley Bambarger, August 2010

Those pining for another Mahler symphony beyond the nine (and a half) he gave us have the Second Symphony of 1909 by Italian Alfredo Casella (1883–1947), one of the Austrian composer’s ardent contemporary champions. Casella’s hour-long Second was only performed a few times and never published—such expensive, Austro-German-style epics were not in fashion in the France or Italy of the day. Even now, the thorough assimilation of Mahler’s language in Casella’s symphony would be embarrassing if the work weren’t melodically appealing. More original is the disc’s other piece, the 21-minute “A Notte Alta” (In Deepest Night), an atmospheric poem for piano and orchestra that shows how much Casella’s style had evolved by 1921.

Arthur S. Leonard
Leonard Link, August 2010

...Alfredo Casella’s 2nd Symphony, Op. 12...was not published during the composer’s lifetime—perhaps he was abashed at the heavy influence of Mahler permeating the music, which was premiered in Paris shortly after Mahler’s 2nd Symphony had its own first performance in that city—but is now rendered in all its sonic splendor in this new recording, more than a century later, when questions of influence seem less important.

I first listened on headphones during my morning workout, and my heart was won over right away. I immediately transferred it to the ipod and have been listening, one long movement at a time, during my commute. This is a great soundtrack for life. Before I had ever read the booklet notes, I had concluded that this man was heavily influenced by Mahler, only to see my opinions confirmed by the note-writer. (I had not been aware that Casella, an Italian who spent many years living in Paris, had been instrumental in lining up the financing for the Mahler symphony premiere.) But what struck me even more was how this score prefigures the great age of Hollywood orchestral film scores of the 1930s through the 1950s. Indeed, this sounds to me like the perfect soundtrack score for a classic “film noir.” Lots of portentous chord progressions, rich luscious strings, pounding rhythms…this piece has it all—except, of course, for the memorable themes that are needed to qualify a piece for standard repertory status. Casella did not quite have that melodic gift. But everything else is in place for an exciting listening experience...The Rome SO...does very well by the score on this recording, under the energetic leadership of Maestro La Vecchia...The symphony runs just under an hour, leaving room for a large filler—A notte alta for piano and orchestra, Op. 30b, with pianist Sun Hee You. This piece was written almost a decade after the symphony, and Casella had definitely moved beyond his Mahler infatuation in the intervening years. I found this piece less absorbing, but still worth hearing. But get this disc for the symphony, and wallow in faux Mahler, glorious faux Mahler.

Robert Benson, August 2010

Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) was an important composer of his era, and a conductor as well: he directed the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1927–1929 (succeeded by Arthur Fiedler). His fellow students at the Paris Conservatory included Ravel and Debussy, and he admired Mahler’s music and knew all of the symphonies “by heart” he told the composer. Casella was largely responsible for the Paris premiere of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony in 1910. Casella also was important in the mid-century revival of interest in early Italian music. His ballet La Giara was very successful (it’s surprising there aren’t more recordings of it). Casella wrote three symphonies...the large-scale Symphony No. 2 composed in 1908–09. It is a grand, four-movement work of considerable length...highly rhythmic and often dramatic, with traces of Mahler and Korngold, tolling bells, and an exhilarating scherzo...The Naxos performances are excellent in every way, with a novelty as filler: A notte alta (“In deepest night”) for piano and orchestra composed in 1917 for solo piano, orchestrated later. Casella stated this is the only piece of program music he had ever composed, “inspired by emotional events in my personal life,” actually a rather dark, brooding work descriptive of his love for a student, Yvonne Müller, who later became his second wife. It begins and ends mysteriously and the solo piano part is rather stark. The Sinfonica di Roma was founded in 2002 and its musical director is Francesco La Vecchia. They give first-rate performances on this Naxos CD, with audio quality to match. This orchestra and conductor will make many more recordings for Naxos of music by Italian composers. I look forward to them.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2010

Last month I wrote at length of the enigma that surrounds the music of Alfredo Casella. In this ongoing series we now have his Second Symphony dating from 1910 and though it comes with the heading of ‘first recorded performance’, by some bizarre coincidence it follows last months release on the Chandos label. The writer of the accompanying notes expounds at length the theory that the work’s hitherto neglect - it was never published in Casella’s lifetime and was unplayed for eighty years - was the result of his championing the Paris premiere of Mahler’s Second Symphony, a concert that angered the French music establishment and did little for Casella’s career. More likely it was a style already out of date in Paris that relied too heavily on the inspiration of late-Romantics, Wagner and Mahler being easy to cite. If that description interests you, please do hear it, for in this long work - lasting not much short of the hour - ideas flooded from Casella. He scored to great effect and many of the thematic ideas are readily memorable, particularly when Albert Roussel shares in the influences. So we have plenty of gong smashes, pounding and impact-creating timpani, the second movement full of inventive ideas in sound. I don’t know where the third movement inspiration comes from - the orient creeping in - but it is heavily imbued with sadness. The finale is a mix of youthful pleasure - Casella was still only 27 - and the sombre death music that has an input from Saint-Saens, everything blazing in a grandiose epilogue. We move to erotic forbidden love for A notte alta, a thinly disguised picture of the composer and his young mistress. Scored for piano and orchestra, is this a latter-day Tristan and Isolde? Born in Korea, but educated and now resident in Italy, Sun Hee You is the delicate and persuasive soloist, and if at times the Rome orchestra cannot hide the difficulties in the scoring of the symphony, they play with enthusiasm thtoughout. Good sound.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group