What a fantastic piece Alfredo Casella’s Second Symphony is! Its opening is arresting – a gloomy, bell-tolling introduction that through a steep crescendo to a stinging fff crashes into the vigorous and tense allegro that is itself contrasted with ghostly and enigmatic slower material. Surprisingly, given the music’s darkness, edge, and complex incident and clashes, this is not a wartime symphony, for Turin-born Casella (1883-1947), who studied alongside Enescu and Ravel at the Paris Conservatoire and met Mahler in that city in 1909, heard his ambitious 50-minute symphony (began in 1908) unveiled at Salle Gaveau on 23 April 1910 (the First World War still a few years away).
Quite why such a striking and accomplished piece as this (and which is dedicated to George Enescu) is only now having its first recording is bewildering. It’s a thrilling and moving piece, optimistic lyricism emerging from out of the energetic and combative first movement, which is brilliantly scored for a large orchestra. The succeeding and macabre scherzo (softened by measures that are pure Italian dance) is also ominous (if not without fiery jubilation) and is set in motion by hollow-sounding timpani strokes, Casella’s kaleidoscopic orchestration played here with virtuosity by the BBC Philharmonic driven by a totally committed Gianandrea Noseda, the music’s many colours revealed by a recording of depth, physical impact and clarity (sympathetic or on-holiday neighbours required!).
Casella’s Second Symphony is a five-movement work, the last two being a linked finale and epilogue (shades of Bax here) that plays for 17 minutes. At the symphony’s heart is an anguished slow movement, one that initially cannot shake of the ostinatos that have underpinned the opening two movements, music that seems to desolately wrestle some very personal conflicts yet with some ravishing and opulent-sounding outpourings, not so much a symbiosis between the music of Mahler and Richard Strauss (but they can heard, too) for Casella is closer in style to Franz Schmidt (whose remarkable Fourth Symphony, which post-dates Casella’s work, stands as one of the most ineffable and wondrous in the repertoire).
Although no programme is stated for this symphony, such a vivid piece as this was perhaps inspired by a narrative; a clue may be that some of the finale’s music was composed for the then-abandoned Prologue for a Tragedy. To complete a symphony that is both full of apprehension – warnings even – and which comes from a composer with an engaging imagination and the musical and technical resources to carry them out, the finale-with-epilogue is the most varied of the four, Boléro-like then jaunty march-time in but a few bars, and similarly diverse as the music progresses (if not always hanging together) from funereal to the border of sanguinity, but dogged by pessimism, which the epilogue seems to persist with save for some radiance that emerges towards the close – bells that were previously tolling disaster now triumphant and with an organ supplementing the feeling of resurrection. (Yes, in a Mahlerian sense!)
After this, Scarlattiana (1926) is a jeu d’esprit of the highest order, light-hearted, cheerful music, quite Parisian and certainly Poulencian (Les biches with a substantial piano part rather than dining out on Stravinsky’s Pulcinella), skilfully using numerous keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti for skittish and pastoral effect. Martin Roscoe is the nimble and sensitive pianist and members of the BBC Philharmonic seem to be enjoying themselves; a feast for listeners who enjoy music that is somewhat tongue-in cheek. But the symphony is the thing, and that couldn’t be bettered served in this its first recording.