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.


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa