Thoroughly recommended recordings of some Italian magic.
Adrian Edwards 2012
Alfredo Casella was a highly intelligent musician and an inspiring teacher who was largely responsible for Italian music turning away from Puccini and toward the revival of the classical style in the early 20th century.
He's had little attention in the concert hall or much representation on disc until lately – and Chandos have here issued a second collection of his orchestral works played and conducted by the BBC Philharmonic under their Conductor Laureate, Gianandrea Noseda.
At its heart, A Notte Alta is an autobiographical musical poem that was inspired by his affair with student Yvonne Müller, who was the dedicatee and became his second wife. Personal experience surely tells on this music. It opens "on a winter's night, clear and cold, glacially insensible to human suffering," to quote the composer.
The couple are represented by dominant and decorative themes clearly delineated on piano by Martin Roscoe, the nocturnal atmosphere and florescent scoring caught in a crystal clear recording. After the turbulent climax, with the winter night music restored, four cellos add a note of sorrow, suggesting the scene is no longer in the state previously outlined by its composer.
The Concerto for Orchestra of 1938 was written to mark the 50th anniversary of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. A most appealing work, it is rigorously constructed and, as ever with Casella, brilliantly orchestrated. The first movement is vigorous and tender in turn with the second subject sweetly sung on strings, later by trumpet. An imposing Passacaglia follows where the big climax and descent into a set of magical variations is handled by Noseda with a sure touch, while the extroverted and tuneful finale befits the celebratory occasion.
Like many a composer faced with an operatic flop, Casella put together two series of Symphonic Fragments from "La donna serpente" (The Serpent Woman), an opera that includes a heroic rescue and magic elements comparable to Mozart's The Magic Flute. A lovely Berceuse underlines the dream of King Altidor, and the noble Prelude to Act 3 movingly portrays his situation and that of his Queen, who has been turned into a serpent. In the concluding Battaglia (Battle), Casella's flamboyant music foreshadows the widescreen epics of Miklós Rózsa.
For anyone inquisitive about what happened to Italian music after the death of Puccini, these forthright performances with all musicians on top form come thoroughly recommended.