CASELLA: Symphony No. 3, op. 63 (1939-40). Elegia eroica, op. 29 (1916).
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia.
Naxos 8.572415 TT: 62:12

Wars past and to come. Alfredo Casella came up at the tail end of Italian opera's glory days. Furthermore, opera didn't attract him, but the symphony did, as it did a number of Italian composers pretty much his contemporaries. While a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he somehow encountered the score to Mahler's Symphony No. 2, which overwhelmed him, and this set his course as a composer. Up to that point, Impressionism and the Russian Nationalists -- both very big in the Paris music circles of the time -- had formed the main currents of his music. He never completely lost those elements. However, we can see the split in his orientation within his own Second Symphony (1908-1910), with a "Russian" scherzo and a Mahleresque slow movement.

Casella's Third comes three decades after the Second, during which time Casella also absorbed neoclassical elements. The turn-of-the-century aura around the second has significantly weakened, although Casella remains essentially a Romantic composer, very similar to how Rachmaninoff took on Modern elements. Moments may remind you of other composers -- Prokofiev and others -- but this largely arises by the way. Casella has absorbed his influences into an integrated (although, I must say, not particularly individual) style. The symphony lacks the optimistic ambition of a young composer's work, but it more than makes up for this in an increased mastery of form.

Dark clouds hang over the symphony, perhaps due as much to the Italian political situation as to any inner pessimism. By all accounts, Casella had a naturally sunny disposition. He had also been, like most Italian intellectuals and artists, a supporter of Mussolini's Fascist state. Toscanini was a notable exception among Italian artists. However, by the late Thirties, the bloom had largely faded from the Italian state. Under pressure from the Germans, Mussolini had enacted the Racial Laws in 1938. Unlike most of the rest of Europe, Jews had long assimilated into Italian life almost free of the resentment of other citizens. The laws, seen as imposed on the state by the Nazis, caused such resentment from even some Mussolini supporters, that they contributed to the dictator's fall. For instance, Italo Balbo, widely seen as Mussolini's political heir, strongly opposed them. But, of course, even heavier Nazi domination would come soon. In any case, the times seem to trouble the score.

The first movement begins with a very melancholy Nielsenesque oboe. The orchestra takes up the theme and soon raises the emotional stakes to what I would call "watching the storm." Casella introduces a more lyrical theme, but anxiety immediately washes over it. A long development deepens all of this. Compared to its counterpart in the Second Symphony, this opening movement moves more tautly and purposefully, which contributes to its considerable power. To a great extent, counterpoint drives and governs the emotional tension. You hear very little orchestral "vamping" under a melody.

Strange "open" chords (minus a major or minor third) begin the impressive slow movement and very quickly transform into a very Mahler-like hymn. Casella never lost his early inspiration from Mahler and indeed never totally digested it, either, or lost his fondness for employing the Mahlerian pentatonic "long goodbye" into his work. I would also point out that Mahler, also a composer who proceeds mainly through counterpoint, may have passed along this predilection to his Italian acolyte. Although the Mahlerisms are obvious, Casella avoids sounding like a cheap knock-off. The music has tremendous integrity.

After a grotesque Ländler-march scherzo, heavy on percussion and fantastic instrumental combos, with a "Russian" trio, the rondo finale arrives. Again, Mahler enters the picture in a quick march, but so do other composers in passing, notably the Stravinsky of Petrushka. The movement begins dark but soon explodes in bright colors, dominated by heroic brass. A basic rhythm (long-short-short-long) ties the episodes to the main theme. Again, counterpoint dominates the movement and drives the argument forward. Dark fights with light throughout, and you want to know how the conflict resolves. About two-thirds of the way through, Casella starts up another long goodbye on a Mahler-like hymn based on the rondo theme. The movement winds down in a kind of despair, which seems to me the "real, right" ending, but Casella chooses to end instead in a blaze, an ending which strikes me as tacked on.

Nevertheless, the symphony remains an impressive achievement. The longer movements (all over ten minutes) don't outstay their welcome, which means that Casella has filled them with good things and that his argument moves like a well-shot arrow.

The Elegia eroica comes from 1916 and sounds more "advanced" than the Symphony. The subtitle, "To the memory of a soldier killed in war," refers to the horrors of World War I (Italy joined the Allies against the Germans and Austrians). The American Civil War may have presaged the mass slaughter, but the Great War outstripped it, with the large-scale use of mechanized weapons. The European devastation was so great that Houdini, on tour in England, remarked that he saw very few young men in his audience. The pain of such a catastrophe finds its way into the Elegy. Harmonically, there's barely a chord in it without at least some dissonance. The piece begins in cataclysm. Hints of the "Dies irae" occasionally crop up. After winding down to numbness and desolation -- a survey of the field of dead -- battle music breaks in briefly, as if the god of war has suddenly stuck his face in front of you. However, the music becomes a lullaby, full of grief, rather than comfort. Casella does not leave you with glorious transcendence but a sense of loss. This score represents a road the composer did not take farther, but it does show the power he could summon.

Francesco La Vecchia and the Romans do especially well in the Symphony, although I'd love to hear what the Chicago Symphony (which commissioned the work) or the major London orchestras would do with it. They keep the counterpoint clear, and the conductor shapes each movement purposefully. They certainly reveal the stature of both scores. The sound meets current general expectations without getting your jaw to drop.

S.G.S. (June 2013)