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Classical Lost And Found: Making a Case For Casella

Alfredo Casella's orchestral scores are finally receiving well-deserved attention these days.
Alfredo Casella's orchestral scores are finally receiving well-deserved attention these days.

Up until a few years ago, Italian-born, French-educated composer-pianist-conductor Alfredo Casella's greatest claim to fame in America was as the director of the Boston Pops in the late 1920s, preceding Arthur Fiedler. But that pales in comparison to the significant body of distinguished music he left behind that is receiving increased attention from record companies.

These include the Chandos label, which now gives us three rarely heard symphonic works, including the premiere recording of his Concerto for Orchestra from 1937. It smacks of Paul Hindemith's pioneering effort in this form from a decade earlier, while anticipating Bela Bartók's legendary concerto from 1945.

The first of the concerto's three movements, entitled "Sinfonia," opens with a Gallic sauciness, which seems in keeping with Casella's Parisian training. The following passacaglia presents a somber ostinato that fuels fourteen succeeding variations and a concluding coda. All are crafted with Gebrauchsmusik precision and make virtuosic demands on every member of the orchestra.

Titled "Inno" (Hymn), the last movement displays a fascinating deconstructed hymn tune. Casella's brilliant scoring and neoclassical rhythmic crispness make it all the more arresting.

A notte alta (In Deepest Night) was originally a solo piano piece until 1921 when Casella revamped it for piano and orchestra. Pervaded by a frigid angst, its programmatic scenario concerns a nocturnal assignation between an unidentified man and woman, reminiscent of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Casella's score paints a cold, dark wasteland with icy piano passages, chilling harp glissandi and shivering brass.

The disc is filled out with the only currently available recordings of two suites from Casella's opera La donna serpente (The Serpent Woman). The first, with its dreamy lullaby, prickly interlude and aggressive march, recalls Shostakovich, and perhaps even Elgar towards its conclusion. The second suite begins with the opera's high-strung overture and ends with percussion-laced battle music culminating in a final triumphal parade.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda leads the BBC Philharmonic in electrifying performances. They're joined by pianist Martin Roscoe for A notte alta, where he proves himself a worthy advocate of this strangely offbeat score.

Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.

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Bob McQuiston