The Italian composer, pianist and conductor Alfredo Casella is heard as pianist in this 3-CD set made up of piano rolls and 78 rpm gramophone records. The repertoire includes examples of his own music as well his playing of other composers...
Recordings, made between 1931 and 1936, by Trio Italiano [Alfredo Casella (piano), Alberto Poltronieri (violin) & Arturo Bonucci (cello)]:
Bach, transcribed Casella
Sonata a tre [compiled by Casella from The Musical Offering] Beethoven
Piano Trio in D minor, Op.70/1 (Ghost) Brahms
Piano Trio in C, Op.87 Casella
Siciliana e burlesca, Op.23 Roy Harris
Piano Trio Schubert
Sonata in B flat
Casella and the Pro Arte Quartet:
Piano Quintet [Recorded in 1933]
Trio Italiano / Boston Symphony Orchestra / Serge Koussevitzky:
Concerto for piano trio and orchestra, Op.56 [Recorded in 1936]
The piano rolls, from the 1920s, include Casella playing his own music and that of Albéniz, Debussy and Granados; and he is also recorded in duet with Respighi in the latter’s The Fountains of Rome
CD No: FONOTECA FT-97.11.03 (3 CDs) Duration: 3 hours 35 minutes Reviewed: August 2007
The Complete Casella Pianist
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
This utterly fascinating, and unexpected, set is just the sort of release that the collector thrives on, especially when the end result is not only very revealing but, as here, has been compiled and executed with the greatest of care. Indeed, dedicated collectors in Britain, the States and Australia have been called in to seek and excavate material.
One wonders though why a figure such as the Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) should demand such attention, which is not to suggest that he shouldn’t. That the originating label is itself Italian also suggests a parochial interest given that Casella (who was born in Turin and who died in Rome) is hardly a household name. It’s probably fair to say that only his orchestral suite, Paganiniana, which both Ormandy and Muti have recorded, and his orchestration of Balakirev’s piano showpiece, Islamey, have claims on the repertoire. Yet, Casella – who studied in Paris with Fauré, knew Ravel and enthused about Mahler (whose music he conducted) – left a large catalogue of works in numerous genres and for diverse forces. He was at an early stage of his career branded a Modernist composer and was certainly a propagandist for the latest music. To this he somewhat ‘converted’ by writing pieces that can be conveniently described as neo-classical … well it was a term good enough for Stravinsky.
But what may be less known is that Casella was an accomplished pianist who studied the instrument at the Conservatoire in his Paris years; furthermore he recorded enough piano rolls and 78 rpm gramophone sides to fill these three CDs.
This handsome collection courtesy of Fonoteca makes available pretty obscure material, some believed to be lost, that includes some mouth-watering documents. Not the least of which is the very first item – Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome played piano/four hands by Casella and the composer himself (a fine pianist, too). Obviously a piano cannot equal the colour of the orchestral version – and Respighi was a master orchestrator – but to have the composer and a sympathetic colleague as guides is to have illumination as to the composer’s tempos and phrases. It’s a terrific performance, published (if not recorded) in March 1927 on three Welte-Licensee piano rolls. One drawback with rolls is that while a pianist’s speeds, shaping and dynamics are faithfully preserved, their ‘nervous’ reaction to the music may not be captured so effectively; the upside, though, is that piano rolls reproduce (on a player-piano) with a tonal fidelity that is almost-live, certainly living, and can be recorded in that context.
The selection of piano rolls here includes Casella playing pieces by Granados, Albéniz, Debussy (two Préludes from Book II) and five of his own piano miniatures. While the sound is splendidly ‘real’, one does pine a little for a more human attachment to the music – there is something two-dimensional about the roll process, although Casella’s fluid and fantastical way with Debussy is intriguing. Of Casella’s own creations, the influence of Stravinsky is notable – certainly in Pupazzetti (which is listed elsewhere as a four-hand work but a second pianist isn’t credited here) – and all are Parisian in feel, a little saucy, with Berceuse triste suggesting Chopin and Fauré getting on famously. A further caveat about recording on rolls (those here were all made in the 1920s, some for the Duo-art company) is the rather unyielding tone, but how engaging to hear (admittedly slight) music played by the composer.
The lack of a human dimension and the rather unresponsive sound is shown for what it is with the closing work on the first CD, a 1931 Columbia recording (made in Milan) of Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ piano trio. With this example, despite surface noise, one can sense Casella’s fingers on the keys and his emotional engagement with the music; he is joined by violinist Alberto Poltronieri (1892-1981) and cellist Arturo Bonucci (1894-1964), collectively known as Trio Italiano, and together they make an excellent ensemble. The performance is lively and intense; the first movement catching exactly the Allegro vivace e con brio marking and, with no repeat of the exposition, is all over in a flash, the succeeding Largo enigmatically mysterious without being dragged and the finale scurries with purpose.
The Trio Italiano of Casella-Poltronieri-Bonucci takes up the majority of the other two CDs. Included are Brahms’s C major trio (Columbia, Milan, 1932) – given robustly and flexibly and with a reasonably wide dynamic range – Schubert’s Sonata in B flat (London, 1934) in a nimble and attractively light-toned account, and Casella’s own, very likeable, Siciliana e burlesca (recorded at the same time as the ‘Ghost’). Casella’s transcription from Bach’s The Musical Offering to compile a four-movement (alternately slow-fast) Sonata a tre is very effective in this HMV recording made in London in 1936.
In October 1934 the group was in New York and recorded for American Columbia’s “Modern Music Series” Roy Harris’s Piano Trio, a three-movement, 20-minute work beginning with a sinewy, agitated and rhythmically vital Allegro that gives all three musicians plenty to do and who respond with gusto. The slow movement is intensely lyrical and the final ‘Giga’ begins with some typically Harris chords – in that they remind of his ‘signature piece’, the Third Symphony – that build emotionally to quite a severe ‘gigue’; a fine piece, overall, and an excellent performance, and one wonders if Harris (1898-1979) was at the sessions.
There’s another ‘Giga’, the finale of Casella’s own Concerto for piano, violin, cello and orchestra – curiously assigned the same opus number as Beethoven’s example – performed by Trio Italiano, of course, in Symphony Hall, Boston in February 1936 with the Boston Symphony and Serge Koussevitzky, no less. It’s a substantial piece, 30 minutes here, that begins in tragic, almost Biblical style – as heard in film-music terms – the string soloists the first to be heard and given decidedly strenuous passages; after a further outburst from the orchestra, the pianist, here the composer, fairly explodes into action with a burst of cadenza. The first movement is driven along with superb orchestral playing and if the recording is rather thin and vague the exuberance of the occasion is nonetheless well captured and there’s plenty of detail flying around. The 14-minute (sic) Largo (actually it’s 12) is sometimes nobly beautiful and the finale, which is faded up, is an energetic example of ‘modern baroque’. The sound simply doesn’t do justice to the piece, but the authority of the performance is valuable and survives the pockmarked shellacs. The original spoken introduction for this Westinghouse broadcast is retained, which adds to the historical interest.
Casella is also heard speaking for less than a minute, in German, recorded at the Berlin Hochschule in November 1933 – it’s difficult to hear every word (although “schule” seems to be said several times) and no translation or précis is supplied. A novelty, to which the last item to be mentioned – Bloch’s Piano Quintet, recorded in London for HMV by Casella and the Pro Arte Quartet in February 1933 in Studio 1, Abbey Road – is a substantial attraction in three movements, the longest being the last. The recording is excellent, not least in presence and fine balance between piano and strings, and surface noise is hardly noticeable (due to good copies rather than over-processed re-mastering), and the performance is notable for the musicians’ panache and sensitivity, whether in the energy of the outer movements or in appreciating Bloch’s particular brand of mysticism in the central one.
The booklet includes numerous Casella-related photographs and also the reproduction of a letter from The Gramophone Company Ltd, signed by Fred Gaisberg, to Casella explaining the terms under which the Bloch recording would be made, which seems to have been that payment would be solely a 30 percent royalty to be shared between the five musicians. Gaisberg didn’t expect too many records to be sold but felt that the music should be recorded. The photos include Casella in the company of his Trio Italiano colleagues as well as with Berg, Boult, Defauw, Fitelberg, Schoenberg and Steuermann – and also with Respighi when recording The Pines of Rome, which is dated 1925.
Although Fonoteca’s presentation suggests this as a ‘complete’ Casella-as-pianist edition, a page of the booklet announces a forthcoming release that includes Casella’s piano-music played by Gieseking, Agemov and Loesser, and also more Casella piano rolls, essaying Bach and Brahms. Also, and wait for this, a performance of John Ireland’s Piano Concerto in Rome in 1946 with Annarosa Taddei and Casella conducting.
This set’s re-mastering is excellent. Surface noise is allowed to remain without being intrusive and no attempt has been made to filter ‘pop and crackle’ to such a degree that the instruments’ tones are compromised; presentation is also noteworthy and Fonoteca’s laudable aims are to be congratulated.