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David Hurwitz, March 2015

…the performances are wholly convincing, well played and recorded. © 2015 Read complete review

Mark L Lehman
American Record Guide, November 2011

The orchestra plays very well, and the sonics are very good…Casella was undoubtedly a very up-to-date composer in the first two decades of the 20th Century.

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

Rob Cowan
Gramophone, September 2011

Casella’s Third contains echoes of the 20th century’s symphonic greats

As presented here, Alfredo Casella’s musical language is imposing, his structures formidable and, in the case of the enormously exciting march-threnody Elegia eroica, “to the memory of a soldier killed in the [First] war”, both powerful and, towards its close, deeply contemplative. But the principal work is the broad-shouldered, 46-minute Third Symphony that Casella started composing in 1939, a commission from Frederick Stock for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and truly representative of the conflicts and contradictions that were at the cold heart of Mussolini’s Italy…and of Casella’s attitude to it, as David Gallagher’s perceptive note makes abundantly clear. Here was a man who, although married to a Jewish woman, aligned his thinking with Il Duce and his minions; and, while he did eventually see the error of his thoughts, they took their time changing.

The added irony is that years earlier Casella had been commissioned by Mahler (Jewish, of course) to arrange his Seventh Symphony for piano duet, and you can indeed hear echoes of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony at around 7’28” into Casella’s sizeable finale. The Scherzo is at times a dead ringer for the Scherzo of Mahler’s Sixth or of Shostakovich’s Fifth but even more surprising are the striking premonitions of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony at around 6’24” into the often beautiful second movement (similarly Casella’s use of the piano). Honegger is another stylistic point of reference, so what we have here is a sort of musical temperature gauge, a gauge that simultaneously clocks the overall mood of the period.

La Vecchia’s Rome performance is pretty good as far as it goes…

William Dart
The New Zealand Herald, August 2011

There is a real symphonic argument pursued over its four movements and, from La Vecchia’s forceful baton work, one imagines him as a man who enjoys a lively discussion over chianti.

Individual touches include an Andante molto moderato that, despite some cool woodwind colourings, is Italianate in its lyricism, and a Scherzo as sardonic as Shostakovich at his most barbed.

The disc is completed with Casella’s 1916 Elegia eroic…a shattering score, balancing tender lament with a fury not afraid of shrillness to make its point., July 2011

The Romantic era is not the only musical period in which significant rediscovery is in progress. The so-called “modern” era (say, from Mahler onward) has become far more readily accepted in concert performances and recordings, with the result that there is increasing interest in offering some works outside what could be called the “modern mainstream.” The symphonies of Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) are examples, and Naxos has now made all three of them available—the first “Casella cycle” ever recorded. The final symphony, written on the eve of World War II in 1939-40, was composed for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony and requires considerable orchestral virtuosity. Structured in the traditional four movements and running the traditional length of a Romantic-era symphony (about 45 minutes), Casella’s Third is a throwback in some ways, its melodic and harmonic worlds largely harking back to the 19th century. It is also a work of considerable emotional scope—again, in line with symphonies of the previous century. The symphony is very well-wrought, and it certainly contains elements showing that Casella was not unaware of 20th-century musical developments. It would be overstating to say that this is a great work, but it is an impressive one, and the emotional content of the Andante molto moderato, quasi adagio slow movement is particularly affecting. Francesco La Vecchia conducts the symphony with considerable empathy, and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma plays it very well. The ensemble also does a fine job with the extended lament from 1916, Elegia eroica, which Casella said was written in memory of a soldier killed in war—this is distinctly a work of World War I. The single soldier referred to by Casella is intended to stand for all Italian soldiers who had already died in the “Great War,” and the piece is a suitable lament, conveying strong emotions through well-controlled orchestration and a pervasive sense of solemnity.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, July 2011

To my mind one of the most interesting and successful current Naxos series is that devoted to the orchestral music of Alfredo Casella. The current release is the fourth and contains Casella’s third and last symphony. Suffice to say all of the excellent values of performance and engineering/production of the first three volumes are duplicated here so admirers need not hesitate.

I had no knowledge of the major works prior to collecting these discs but I was mightily impressed with the scale and power of the earlier two symphonies. Casella’s third and final essay in the form is actually—and rather confusingly—simply titled Sinfonia and dates from 1939 making it a full three decades younger than the earlier pair. All three are big works; Nos. 1 & 3 clock in around the ¾ hour mark and No.2 is a full 55 minutes. Although the influences are different it is clear to hear that Casella was a man who was willing to let his admiration for the music of others infuse his own. So where the earlier works are epically Mahlerian the later work echoes Shostakovich and Nielsen as well. I would have to say that this Sinfonia has not made as immediate an impact on me as the earlier works. The central pair of movements seem to contain the most cogent and well argued music. In the excellent liner-note by David Gallagher it is pointed out that the work is truly symphonic in that nearly all of the melodic material in the entire work derives from the opening germinal material. This I suppose reflects the experience gained through his career but it does not necessarily make for as compelling a listen as the excitingly confident indeed bravura music he wrote in his twenties. The first movement in particular suffers from extended passages of musical material being ‘worked’ without the sense of it creating an emotional landscape for the listener. After the rather appealing sparse opening the scoring suffers from being rather heavy and unrelenting. That being said the final pages of the movement flutter away into quiet inconsequence. These are all impressions that are based on a relatively brief acquaintance with the work and without the benefit of the score.

The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under conductor Francesco La Vecchia continue to make the good impression they formed previously—the strings play with good ensemble and a well balanced tone. Italian brass players are always game to play with plenty of edge and attack and so they do here. I have not heard the other available version on CPO from the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Alun Francis but I cannot imagine they have much to fear from it in purely technical terms. Having heard very little ‘war’ music in the opening movement the second movement Andante molto moderato opens with a string-led threnody that is instantly much more engaging and powerful than anything in the opening movement. The Rome strings are good but I can imagine this movement being even more powerful if played with the weight and unanimity of Vienna or Berlin. I like the way the music slowly builds a momentum becoming a rather lop-sided yet unrelenting march underlying some lovely lyrical lines for the strings and woodwind. It is rather quirky and individual before the mood lightens towards a calm major key resolution. The third movement Scherzo has a mechanistic (rather than militaristic) feel and while it has some of Shostakovich’s stamping energy it lacks the nightmarish malice of that composer’s writing that makes his scherzi in particular so remarkable. I wonder if it would benefit from a slightly more unleashed tempo than here? I’m sure La Vecchia’s choice is dictated by the complex filigree writing that surrounds the main material but it does result in a basic pulse that plods.

The Finale is altogether more buoyant indeed optimistic which might seem at odds with the wartime context. But as Gallagher points out repeatedly Casella was an enthusiastic indeed sycophantic supporter of Mussolini and his fascist agenda and since the war was still going relatively well for the regime in 1939/40 why not be optimistic? Again, I find there are passages which I suspect appeal more to the academics who admire the way in which the material is developed—to my innocent ear they lack a huge amount of melodic interest. But there are several passages which allow the impressive Rome horns and brass to shine excitingly. This is the movement that sounds most heroically filmic. After the bombast of the opening ten minutes of the movement there is a coda/epilogue that is rather beautiful in the way the musical lines grope upwards sinuously in a mood of hymn-like reflection which just as it is fading away with elegiac solo strings is flattened by a raucously noisy conclusion. Given that that ending lacks any of the irony or forced good-humour of a Shostakovich one is left assuming that Casella was feeling pretty good about things in 1940 after all!

If the symphony was the only work on offer here I would direct collectors to the earlier works. However, it is this disc’s ‘filler’ which proves to be the absolute jewel here and indeed one of the finest works by Casella I have yet encountered. This is also a work written in time of war—1916—but here the presence of tragedy and sorrow is unmistakeable. This Elegia eroica is subtitled “alla memoria di un Soldato morto in Guerra”. The very opening is magnificently striking in a way that eluded the symphony totally. Tolling horns, ominous tam-tam, skirling wood-wind and disconsolate strings immediately plunge the listener in a world of loss and despair. It feels much more modern and challenging than the later work. This is how Casella described it; “a heroic funeral march, a more intimate deeply sorrowful central episode; and finally a fusillade of death that thunders through the orchestra [and] subsides into a tender lullaby evoking an image of our country as a mother tenderly cradling her dead son”. The musical means Casella uses for this are actually considerably more modernistic than the potentially maudlin narrative might imply. It reminds me of the expressionist scores being written in Germany around this time and certainly quite unlike any other contemporaneous Italian score I can think of. The Rome orchestra are superb here relishing the extremes of dynamic and range the piece demands. Casella’s particular coup-de-théâtre was lost on the work’s first audience. The final lullaby is given to the solo oboe which plays fragments of the 19th century patriotic song Fratelli d’Italia over a string-led rocking berceuse accompaniment—definite echoes of The Firebird here. It is a passage of tender beauty and poignant rapture—all drowned out in 1916 by “a tidal wave of indignation … not a single note could be heard.” Casella pares his orchestration right back to a skeletal minimum to stunning effect. In its quasi-minimalist way this passage pre-echoes Holst’s Uranus or the finale of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.6. Even the way Casella avoids any ‘comfortable’ ending adds to the impact and sincere power of the work.

So a conundrum for the collector to consider—a big symphony that is interesting but not the place to start your symphonic investigation of the composer coupled with a shorter work that represents him at his considerable finest. On balance, at the Naxos bargain price point, I would say worth buying for the Elegia alone. Hopefully Naxos will continue to use this creative team for further projects and indeed more Casella.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, July 2011

Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) was an Italian composer, pianist, critic, conductor, and teacher who produced a good deal of music during the first half of the twentieth century. Yet record companies these days seldom produce much by him, and major orchestras seldom play his works. His Third Symphony was a success at its première and for a few years thereafter, and then it dropped out of sight. Did it deserve the neglect? Perhaps.

Casella called his Symphony No. 3, Op. 63 (1939–40), simply Sinfonia, perhaps to distinguish it from his first two symphonies, the last of which he wrote some three decades earlier. After No. 2 he apparently had no intention of ever writing another symphony, but he accepted a commission (along with a number of other composers) from the Chicago Symphony to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary, and the work he began sort of got out of hand on him, growing into a full-fledged symphony of four interconnected movements before he knew it.

Naxos, with Maestro Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, have already recorded Casella’s first two symphonies, so this disc wraps up the man’s symphonic output. La Vecchia takes the opening Allegro of No. 3 at a steady gait, building pressure as it goes along. This movement establishes an agitated, somewhat dissonant mood, leading to a quiet Andante that rather creeps up on the listener. Casella had studied music with Gabriel Faure and among his fellow students and later acquaintances were Maurice Ravel, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss. They obviously influenced Casella’s early compositions, but we see a shift in this Third Symphony, written late in his career. While the Andante is old-fashioned in its sweet, lyrical aspirations, it displays clearly modern tendencies, with little hint of any Romantic melodies. In fact, it reminds one in this regard of several of the slower sections of Mahler’s symphonies.

Then we get a brief Scherzo that appears more turbulent than anything in the first movement, with pounding background notes sounding much like something from Shostakovich. After that, the Rondo Finale begins slowly, softly, but menacingly. La Vecchia leads it on an adventurous, rhythmic journey that gets ever more rambunctious as it progresses. After a strongly vigorous climax, the music recedes into relative calm before a brief, jubilant conclusion, perhaps indicating Casella’s hope for a triumphant outcome to the Second World War, just underway in Europe. The booklet notes comment on Casella’s dedication to Mussolini and Fascism, so the possibility is not entirely out of the question.

The program ends with Casella’s Elegia eroica (“Heroic Elegy”), Op. 29, from 1916.  He wrote it in memory of a soldier fallen in battle in the First World War. It is properly somber, almost to the point of grimness. At once intimate and solemn, it is a kind of funeral dirge for the lost soldier, turning unexpectedly into a lullaby at the end. I found it a more effective work than his Third Symphony for its more passionate tone and its more concise expression. Under La Vecchia, it is a powerful and profound musical experience.

Recorded in Rome in 2008 (Third Symphony) and 2010 (Elegia), the sound is typical of the work Naxos usually produce—very clean, very competent…

Joshua Meggitt
Cyclic Defrost, June 2011

Italian proto-modernist Alberto Cassella is known for his problematic political stance during Italy’s Fascist period, including the dedication of an opera to the Duce, but almost all Italian composers towed the line and used the regime for opportunistic ends. Casella remained a strong supporter of new music however, more easily done under Mussolini than Hitler admittedly, but admirable nonetheless. The two works presented here date from between the Wars, those bookends of European Fascism, and show Casella’s original artistic involvement in these tumultuous times.

The Elegia Eroica (‘Heroic Elegy’) is Casella’s response to the First World War, dedicated ‘to the memory of a soldier killed in the war’. Moving from slow-moving dirge through to massive multi-layered bombast, the Elegia is a landmark of symphonic expression, fittingly grandiose and effectively conveying the extremes of conflict.

Casella’s Third Symphony is more conventional, reminiscent of Mahler and Shostakovich, but again it demonstrates an idiosyncratic approach to orchestration, and a keen understanding of the richness of the forces at his command. The performances by Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma are articulate and even brash, clearly devoted to conveying the intensity evident in the music of their fellow countryman.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2011

The more I hear of the Italian  composer, Alfredo Casella, the greater becomes this enigma of 20th century music. A remarkably gifted child born in 1883, he was despatched to Paris to the Conservatoire where his much revered tutor was to be Faure. He holds little claim that he was influenced by him, but does profess that he learned much  from the music of Ravel, Debussy and the young Stravinsky. Almost three decades had passed since the arrival of his first two symphonies before he returned to that genre in 1939 with the arrival of a commission from the Chicago Symphony. In the traditional four movements, it is difficult to follow the work’s structure, his thematic material used in a very fluid fashion. The scherzo bubbles with energy, while the Rondo finale—which hardly belongs to the first three movements—is vividly coloured and at times in lightweight mode. At the end of the Second World War few wanted to show support to a person who had so blatantly shown his delight with Fascism, and his music vanished from view. Yet he had his moments as a composer, the Elegia eroica (Heroic elegy), written in memory of all soldiers who died in the First World War, could well have served as a film score, its bitter and clashing harmonies becoming a picture of horror. Fanfares and enormous outbursts picture the scene that awaited the soldiers, the concluding section offering the peace that only death could bring in this conflict. The performances from the Rome orchestra with their conductor, Francesco La Vecchia, have an abundance of dedication, while the sound quality reminds me of an Italian radio station broadcast.

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