Alfredo Casella was born in Turin to a musical family, his grandfather having been a cellist and friend of Paganini. He studied piano under Louis Diémer and composition under Gabriel Fauré at the Conservatoire de Paris, where George Enescu and Maurice Ravel were among his fellow students. During this period in Paris he met Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Manuel de Falla. It was these composers and his enthusiasm for Strauss and Mahler that influenced his early music.
In 1915 he took a post at Liceo di Santa Cecilia in Rome. As conductor, composer and organiser he was active in the cause of contemporary music having by then fallen under the influence of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok.
His compositions include opera and ballet works, vocal works, orchestral works including three symphonies, concertos, piano works and chamber works including the two works for string quartet included on this new release, Concerto per archi, Op.40 and Cinque pezzi, Op.34.
This new disc opens with the World Premiere Recording of Casella’s Concerto per archi, Op.40 (1923). The Sinfonia: Allegro brioso e deciso immediately shows an astringency as the theme hurtles forward. The second subject is just as frantic until the music slows in a gentler section with pizzicato cello. The music eventually builds again, underscored by pizzicato cello until the opening tempo is arrived at and the opening theme is developed. Again the music falls quiet before building up to move inexorably to the coda.
The second movement, Siciliana: Andante dolcemente mosso, has a quiet, gentle opening where the lovely melody is passed around the instruments. A gentle rocking theme emerges as the cello keeps a rhythmic pizzicato pulse. The theme is varied and shared around the instruments until a new theme opens, livelier and more playful with a very Mediterranean feel. Soon the gentle rocking theme returns in a particularly beautiful passage, beautifully played by this Quartet, who maintain its reflective rocking pulse exquisitely. The playful theme tries to return, is cut off by the rocking theme, tries again and fails as the viola continues the reflective theme with its rich vibrant tone. This is a beautiful movement with the feel of being based on a folk tune. There is a little outburst before the quiet end.
The Minuetto: Recitativo. Aria: Allegretto grazioso e molto moderato opens with a light, happy melody that gently moves along. Casella uses subtle little dissonances but is always melodic. Soon the music changes to a broad, chordal passage with a motif played over chords on the lower instruments. This leads to a further development by the violins before the music moves into a gentle section and a return of the opening theme only more thoughtful, slowly quietening towards the end.
The Canzone: Allegro giocoso e vivacissimo commences with a bright and breezy melody that develops some strongly rhythmic dissonances. This gives way to a gentler fast moving theme before the rhythm of the opening returns as the music builds again, rising upwards and increasing in tempo. When the gentle theme returns it develops a rather spiky nature. When the opening theme returns it soon quietens but returns to its original pace to lead to the coda.
The Concerto per archi is certainly a very attractive work, finely played by the Quartetto di Venezia.
The Preludio:Allegro vivace e barbaro of the slightly earlier Cinque pezzi, Op.34 (1920) displays what appears typically Casellian fast moving theme that soon quietens whilst keeping its fast moving theme. The two themes alternate until the opening theme leads to the coda.
Ninna Nanna: Tempo di ‘Berceuse’ (Andantino dolcemente mosso) opens quietly as the instruments slowly join in a lilting theme that richens and develops with many delicate and atmospheric musical ideas before ending quietly. Valse ridicule: Tempo di valzer grazioso is a strange, dissonant, spectral waltz that is followed by Notturno: Lento grave funebre where the strange harmonies fit well after the waltz as the players slowly move around a theme allowing it to slowly appear. The music returns to the opening harmonies but rises back to the opening theme again. Eventually a brighter section lifts the music but it soon quietens to the opening tentative phrases to end.
There is an opening flourish to the final movement that soon gives way to a lively Fox-Trot: Tempo giusto (Allegro molto moderato) with members of the quartet strings keeping the rhythm whilst the first violin plays the melody. There is a terrific second subject before the opening returns with playing of great fun. Casella allows the music to become a little laboured as it progresses but it eventually speeds to the coda to end this varied and entertaining work.
Guido Turchi was born in Rome where he studied with Pizzetti before teaching at the Conservatory there. In 1970 he became director of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. His compositions include an opera, orchestral works, vocal and chamber works including his Concerto breve (1947) that concludes this disc.
The Elegia: Molto lento has a quiet opening with s harmonies on the strings before it slowly emerges as a dramatic, passionate theme. Later it descends to quiet shimmering strings underlined by pizzicato cello but the melody rises again, alternating with the quieter theme, until it quietens as it leads into a vibrant Allegro, un po’ concitato that is constantly varied with some very fine playing from this Quartet. There is a quiet, slow shifting central section that is quite atmospheric as it weaves around. When the opening theme returns, full of propulsion, it leads to the coda, a lovely melody against a high held violin note, full of expectation, leading to the Rondo: Allegro, piuttosto vivace e ben ritmato that has a slightly syncopated rhythmic theme that rises and falls but with an unstoppable forward momentum. When a slower, flowing section arrives it is full of pathos and mystery with a pizzicato cello adding the remnants of rhythm as the music quietly closes.
This is a remarkably fine work played so well by the excellent Quartetto di Venezia.
With a first rate recording and informative booklet notes, these are works certainly worth exploring.