CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Casella and Mozart

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new releases featuring works of Alfredo Casella and Mozart.

ALFREDO CASELLA: Symphony No. 1 in b minor, op.5 (1905-06). Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia.  Concerto for Strings, Piano, Timpani and Percussion, op. 69 (1943). La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma; with Desirae Scuccuglia, piano and Antonio Ceravolo, percussion. Naxos 8.572413.

CASELLA: Symphony No. 2 in c minor, op. 2 (1908-10). BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Scarlattiana, op. 44 (1926).  Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic; with Martin Roscoe, piano. Chandos 10605.

There seems to be a revivial of interest in the music of Alfredo Casella. We are beginning to look at the music apart from the man, some sixty-three years after his death. His embrace of fascism in the late 1930s, after spending some time in the United States (including a long-since-forgotten and very brief stint as principal conductor of the Boston Pops), alienated his American audience; he was, however, married to a Jewish woman. The woman he most revered was not his wife but his mother, whom he lauded as his first and most influential teacher; yet he denigrated the female as ‘incapable of creativity’. 

These first two symphonies, interestingly enough, have a slow movement in common (second movement of the three-movement No. 1, unveiled in 1906 when the composer was a mere 23; and third movement of the second, which came out just four years later).  The juxtaposition of these two recordings of works by a young composer who could more than skillfully handle a large orchestra gives an opportunity for comparison of performance—the Rome Symphony Orchestra plays with great enthusiasm and panache, the BBC Philharmonic with the same gusto but with much more polish and assurance, taking the Adagio, quasi andante at a slightly brisker clip with seemingly more attention to ther workings of inner voices.  This is not to denigrate the Rome musicians, who under Franceso La Vecchia give their best, giving a good performance (of Symphony No. 1) that gets better as it moves along. 

Self-borrowing is not unusual among composers.  Bach recast numerous compositions of his with different instrumentation, and made part of his b-minor Mass into a short Christmas cantata (or was it the other way around?). Berlioz cannibalized many juvenile works for his Symphonie fantastique.  Casella’s having two consecutive symphonies that have the same slow movement is a little more than that, but it shows his confidence in himself as a composer in a marked way: he soon became disillusioned with the b-minor Symphony, thinking it juvenile; but he was apparently satisfied enough with the slow movement that he thought nothing of carrying it over from one symphony to the next. 

This is the first recording of the b minor.  It is an impressive work, big in concept as well as big in sound.  There are daring virtuoso passages in the first movement that would challenge the best orchestras, and reveal La Vecchia and his Roman musicians as more than just the solid professionals that they are.  Casella was perhaps too self-critical in his self-denunciation of his first symphony, saying that when he finished it he thought he had created a masterpiece, but unfortunately it was soon published.  Getting from audacity to mastery is a sometimes necessary step in a composer’s development, especially one as gifted as Casella was.  

Francesco La Vecchia and the Rome Symphony have done us the invaluable service of presenting the rarely-heard op. 69 Concerto for Strings, Piano, Timpani and Percussion (1943). It was written for Paul Sacher’s Basel Chamber Orchestra.  This is neoclassicism with plenty of fire.  Casella’s natural bent toward aggressive polyphony suits the neoclassical or neo-Baroque language of the piece, call it what you will.  There is a Bartókian abrasiveness and a Bachian sense of structure in the first movement.  The piano contributes greatly to the orchestral heft.  The second movement, a Sarabande, continues the heavy-textured flavor that began the Concerto, with relief in the form of an exquisite duo for violin and piano framed by pizzicato string figurations.  There are even twelve-tone rows heard in canon and inversion here and there, but Casella (much like Leonard Bernstein was to do later) uses these techniques in the context of a piece firmly rooted in tonality.  Casella had mastered the technique of dodecaphonic writing fairly early on, but rejected it as an end in itself.  The percussion group is much more in evidence in the concluding Allegro molto vivace, an exuberant finish.  Here, Maestro La Vecchia’s string sections are at their best.

Gianandrea Noseda fills out his first-ever-recording of the Second Symphony with the 1926 Scarlattiana for piano and small orchestra. Like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances suites, it is a charming re-invention of an earlier composer’s work.  Casella drew on as many as ninety of the four-hundred-plus keyboard Sonatas by the earlier Italian composer.  The orchestral playing is unusually finished and full of expression and color. Pianist Martin Roscoe deftly evokes the spirit of the eighteenth-century master.

MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in g minor, K. 550. Jeannette Sorrell conducting Apollo’s Fire. Lucio Silla, K. 135: Recitative and Aria: In un instante..Parto, maffretto Amanda Forsythe, soprano; with Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire. Idonemeno, K. 367: Ballet Music.  Four Dances: K. 123, K. 463, K. 463 and reprise of K. 123. Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire.  Avi© 2159.

Mozart by Apollo's FireI have to declare an interest: generally, I am not much of a fan of period-instrument ensembles.  Some play more expressively than others; sometimes, the energy of a leader who happens to be a superb performer on his own instrument can contribute much toward the quality and style of such a group.  I am thinking particularly of Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord) and Andrew Manze (violin); Reinhard Goebel’s Cologne Musica Antiqua ensemble plays with a great deal of verve, and has performed the additional service of acquainting the public with repertoire it might not otherwise have noticed.  Goebel, be it noted, is also a very fine violinist.  Conductors who demand that string players use little or no vibrato, and conductors who use wind instruments whose intonation is faulty, turn me off as much as choral conductors who insist that their female singers try to sound like boys — using something called ‘straight tone’.  A lot of this no-vibrato, straight-tone business, in my view, has more to do with the faux politesse of our own time than with how things might have sounded two or three hundred years ago. 

Jeannette Sorrell and the Cleveland-based group Apollo’s Fire do themselves proud in this all-Mozart disc.  The playing is warm and expressive.  Occasionally, the thinness of the gut strings and old-style ‘German’ flutes can be off-putting.  The recording was done a little over two years ago at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, which sounds a little dry but not too much so.  Ms. Sorrell tends to like pregnant pauses between phrases, and is not averse to ‘pulling’ or ‘bending’ phrases especially in the slow movement: a little more resonance would be of great help there. 

Ms. Sorrell uses the version of the Symphony No. 40 without clarinet parts.  The wind-playing in the trio to the minuet and the exquisite balancing of the horns with the other instruments is stunning.  The finale is lithe and energetic; the limitations of the reed instruments occasionally get in the way.  All repeats are observed, and the playing is generally clean with an unusually conscientious attention to phrasing.  It seams that thinking in phrases is a hallmark of Jeannette Sorrell’s way of doing things. That is only to the good, and always the mark of a superior musician.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe shines brightly in the Lucio Silla recitative and aria.  Her Italian diction is flawless, and Sorrell is a most expressive partner for her.  Ms. Forsythe is a passionate artist with plenty of technique, and the elaborate triplet runs in the aria hold no terrors for her. 

The Idomeneo ballet music is the only piece on this disc that involves percussion (timpani in this instance) and brass.  Here, as in the g minor Symphony, Ms. Sorrell’s mastery of orchestral balance is clearly in evidence.  Ms. Sorrell, who wrote the liner notes for the album herself, speaks of the Baroque-ness of this music.  Maybe, but only inasmuch as the use of earlier dance-music forms is concerned.  The opening Chaconne reveals a side of Mozart still often overlooked, which is his place as one of the great musical tragedians of all time.  Any composer who has a lot to say has many sides, and Alfred Einstein a long time ago drew greater general attention to what he called the ‘daemonic’ side of Mozart—the Mozart of Don Giovanni and the d-minor (K. 466) and c-minor (K. 491) piano concertos, just to give a few examples.  Ms. Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire, in my opinion, are at their very best in this music. 

Equally effective is a suite of four dances from Mozart’s early and late career (the Contredanse K. 123, played at the beginning and the end of the group; a Menuet, K. 463; and a set of Contredanses, K. 462.  All of these brief numbers are played without pause.

I would very much like to hear Jeannette Sorrell, who numbers Leonard Bernstein among her teachers, conduct an orchestra composed of modern instruments.  She is a highly skilled and very sensitive musician, and enters completely into the spirit of the music.