Also, Elegia eroica. Francesco La Vecchia, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. Naxos 8.572415.
Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) was an Italian composer, pianist, critic, conductor, and teacher who produced a good deal of music during the first half of the twentieth century. Yet record companies these days seldom produce much by him, and major orchestras seldom play his works. His Third Symphony was a success at its première and for a few years thereafter, and then it dropped out of sight. Did it deserve the neglect? Perhaps.
Casella called his Symphony No. 3, Op. 63 (1939-40), simply Sinfonia, perhaps to distinguish it from his first two symphonies, the last of which he wrote some three decades earlier. After No. 2 he apparently had no intention of ever writing another symphony, but he accepted a commission (along with a number of other composers) from the Chicago Symphony to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary, and the work he began sort of got out of hand on him, growing into a full-fledged symphony of four interconnected movements before he knew it.
Naxos, with Maestro Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, have already recorded Casella's first two symphonies, so this disc wraps up the man's symphonic output. La Vecchio takes the opening Allegro of No. 3 at a steady gait, building pressure as it goes along. This movement establishes an agitated, somewhat dissonant mood, leading to a quiet Andante that rather creeps up on the listener. Casella had studied music with Gabriel Faure and among his fellow students and later acquaintances were Maurice Ravel, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss. They obviously influenced Casella's early compositions, but we see a shift in this Third Symphony, written late in his career. While the Andante is old-fashioned in its sweet, lyrical aspirations, it displays clearly modern tendencies, with little hint of any Romantic melodies. In fact, it reminds one in this regard of several of the slower sections of Mahler's symphonies.
Then we get a brief Scherzo that appears more turbulent than anything in the first movement, with pounding background notes sounding much like something from Shostakovich. After that, the Rondo Finale begins slowly, softly, but menacingly. La Vecchia leads it on an adventurous, rhythmic journey that gets ever more rambunctious as it progresses. After a strongly vigorous climax, the music recedes into relative calm before a brief, jubilant conclusion, perhaps indicating Casella's hope for a triumphant outcome to the Second World War, just underway in Europe. The booklet notes comment on Casella's dedication to Mussolini and Fascism, so the possibility is not entirely out of the question.
The program ends with Casella's Elegia eroica ("Heroic Elegy"), Op. 29, from 1916. He wrote it in memory of a soldier fallen in battle in the First World War. It is properly somber, almost to the point of grimness. At once intimate and solemn, it is a kind of funeral dirge for the lost soldier, turning unexpectedly into a lullaby at the end. I found it a more effective work than his Third Symphony for its more passionate tone and its more concise expression. Under La Vecchia, it is a powerful and profound musical experience.
Recorded in Rome in 2008 (Third Symphony) and 2010 (Elegia), the sound is typical of the work Naxos usually produce--very clean, very competent, but not quite dynamic enough, extended enough, or transparent enough to place it in the audiophile category.