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.
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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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)