CASELLA: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12 (1908-10). Scarlattiana, op. 44 (1926).
Martin Roscoe (piano); BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda.
Chandos CHAN10605 TT: 76:58.

Verdi is dead. What now? During the 19th century, mainly in France and Italy, opera and theater music tended to crowd out symphonic music, for a rather obvious reason: that's where the money was. Those French and Italian composers who did concentrate on symphonic music tended to enjoy some sort of financial security -- either inherited wealth or a solid job. It didn't help that Verdi was by far the greatest composer in Italy at the time. Critics kept looking for the Next Verdi and found him in Puccini, whose resemblance to Verdi probably limited itself to the fact that he, too, concentrated on opera.

Giuseppe Martucci, a Puccini contemporary, stood as an exception, in that he wrote no opera. As a conductor, however, he opened up Italian music to new influences, leading the Italian premiere of Wagner's Tristan in the late 1880s. He concentrated his original work in creating orchestral music of great refinement and with a vein of genuine poetry, but, despite the advocacy of Toscanini, none of his music has lasted. However, his ideals have persisted through his students and informal followers, who included Respighi and Casella. Gian Francesco Malipiero hailed him as the inspirational source of a modern Italian symphonic school.

On Martucci's advice, Casella studied mainly abroad, in Paris, where he came in contact with the music of Debussy and the Russian nationalists. Mahler also enters into the mix. Indeed, Casella knew Mahler's symphonies in great detail and had even met Mahler in 1909. This allegiance was doubly unusual, both for the earliness of Casella's enthusiasm and for the fact that nothing in his musical environment -- neither in Paris nor in Italy -- made it easy for Casella to encounter these scores.

All these influences sound out clearly in the composer's second symphony, a large four-movement structure with extended epilogue. Still in his 20s, Casella hasn't yet absorbed all of his sources, so parts stand out as raw and undiluted. Nevertheless, the ideas are big, and the talent of a composer just starting out impresses you, despite the awkwardness of the score.

I find the first movement the weakest as well as one of the score's more ambitious. It tends to sprawl, a collection of small passages, for Casella doesn't keep as tight a grip on his argument as he should. He may be trying to emulate Mahler here, but Mahler builds far more solid structures: his episodes turn out not tangential but germane. Casella opens with a tolling slow intro followed by a quick Mahler-inspired march. However, part of its problem stems from insufficient textural or dynamic contrast between most of its episodes, as if Casella -- unlike Mahler -- feels obliged to use all of his huge orchestra all the time, which results in a certain sameness over the movement, a lack of "air" around his forces.

The second movement, a tarantella-like scherzo written at least a year before the rest, shows the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, particularly in the brass writing. Again, the Russians were big in Paris during Casella's studies there. The slower trio may remind some of Stravinsky's Scherzo à la russe. The orchestration in this case delineates the architecture. In all, the scherzo seems more together than the first movement. On the other hand, it has nowhere near the structural complexity of its sibling. The funereal slow movement far more successfully than the first takes from Mahler as it breathes one Mahlerian sigh after another.

The finale begins with a march, the son of Mahler's Sixth (including a couple of Tchaikovskian riffs thrown in), a sonata-rondo, with the contrasting episode a slow lament. As the movement continues, the mood becomes increasingly desperate. To me, this movement reaches a much higher level than the others, fine as some of them are, and makes a case for Casella as potentially a great composer. After another occurrence of the lament and a transitional passage from the Slough of Despond, we reach the extensive epilogue, which from its opening bars aims for heavenly transcendence in a succession of Mahler-like "long farewells." We keep soaring higher and higher until glorious ending. Your reaction, however, may well depend on how close to Mahler you consider it: is it the Mahler idiom very well done or pretty close to a straight steal? I hang out in the former camp.

By the Twenties, Casella had moved from this late Romanticism squarely into a Modern, though conservative, camp, strongly influenced by neoclassicism. Scarlattiana, for piano soloist and orchestra, is not only a divertissement but also an act of Italian nationalism, seeking out strains other than operatic ones in the Italian musical tradition. Although essentially light-hearted, the work shows Casella's considerable composition chops, as well as his erudition. He took selections from the hundreds of Scarlatti keyboard sonatas known to him, chopped them up into little bits, and restrung them together in new sequences, pretty much as Charles Mackerras did with Gilbert & Sullivan for his Pineapple Poll ballet. The rearrangements all make sense. However, in the Minuetto, the second of the work's five movements, Casella lets out Scarlatti's Sonata in E, L. 23/K. 380, for a relatively long run, although altered by Casella's own modern bits. Although not as game-changing a score as Stravinsky's 1920 Pulcinella, still Scarlattiana has a lot of the former's charm.

The performances under Noseda are at least very, very good, with the Symphony demanding and getting something more. It's not an easy thing keep such a self-consciously epic work together, but Noseda does quite well. I can imagine a more sparkling performance of Scarlattiana but haven't found it among the CDs currently available. Noseda and the BBC outdo the forces on Naxos and in Chandos's superior sound, to boot.

S.G.S. (June 2013)