Casella: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Concerto for Strings, Piano, Timpani and Percussion. Desiree Scuccuglia, piano; Antonio Ceravalo, percussion; Francesco La Vecchia, Orchestre Sinfonica di Roma. Naxos 8.572413.

If you are unfamiliar with the music of composer, pianist, critic, conductor, and teacher Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), you are probably not alone. Casella was a leading Italian composer during the first half of the twentieth century and produced a prodigious output, yet record companies these days seldom record and major orchestras seldom play his works. After listening to his First Symphony in particular, one can understand why.

For the sake of variety and comparison, this new Naxos disc couples Casella's first and last purely orchestral compositions, the Symphony No. 1 (1906) and the Concerto for Strings, Piano, Timpani and Percussion (1943), and they're so different they hardly seem to have come from the same person. The Symphony No. 1 begins with a big, dark, intensely driven opening movement, with loads of drama and a dearth of subtlety. As this is a première recording of the First Symphony by Maestro Francesco La Vecchia, we have nothing with which to compare La Vecchia's reading and will have to take his word about how it goes. The Symphony has only three movements, but they have so many contrasting tempos within them, it's hard to tell when one ends and the next begins. The booklet insert notes that Casella was a man of many moods and temperaments who composed in many styles, many of them before their time. While that may be, it doesn't make for a very smooth, polished, or unified First Symphony.

If the jarring first movement points to the twentieth century, the slow second movement echos in some ways the Romanticism of the previous century and especially the exoticism of some Russian composers. The fact is, there is a little bit of everyone and everything in here that Casella probably ever heard, even a hint of Mahler in the Adagio and Bruckner in the massive, lumbering finale.

Well, you can't say conductor La Vecchia, who probably knows this music better than any person alive, doesn't give his best shot. I just doubt that any musician could make much of this overly familiar yet contradictory material.

While Casella wrote the Symphony No. 1 when he was relatively young, the composer being in his early twenties at the time, he wrote the Concerto for Strings, Piano, Timpani and Percussion toward the end of his life, and the added maturity of years shows. The piece does, after all, maintain a consistency of tone, something lacking in the First Symphony. The Concerto is pleasantly rhythmic, with a constantly throbbing pulse. Again, however, Casella may remind the listener of other composers, Bartok for instance or Stravinsky or Honegger. That's OK, because here the music at least comes across as more entertaining and more developed than the earlier work. The Concerto is quite dynamic, with a note of despair, too, perhaps the result of Casella's having composed it in occupied Rome during the height of World War II.

Naxos's sound for the Symphony, recorded in the Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome, in 2009, is rather bright and forward, sometimes even edgy, with little compensating bass support. To confound matters further, there is not much depth to the orchestral stage and precious little air or transparency to the individual instruments. On the other hand, the Concerto, recorded in the OSR Studios, Rome, in 2008, a year before the Symphony recording, appears more roundly and naturally reproduced, with smoother, more-realistic sonics. There is even a bit more depth to the orchestra, although the bass is still wanting.

So, of the two works on the disc it is definitely the Concerto that is worth owning, the First Symphony more of a curiosity.


1 comment:

  1. Je suis en total désaccord avec le commentaire. Ce cd est une véritable révélation d'oeuvres étonnantes et séduisantes et s'il y a ultérieurement d'autres enregistrements de qualité, je suis totalement preneur. Ecoutez le mouvement lent de la symphonie et vous ne pourrez qu'être enthousiaste.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa