CASELLA: Paganiniana. Serenata. La Giara.
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Christian Benda, cond.
NAXOS 8.553706 (B) (DDD) TT: 62:00

Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) studied with Fauré in Paris, knew many of the leading musical figures of the time, and supposedly was influenced by Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Stravinsky and Albeniz. He had a career as a pianist and harpsichordist. In 1917 he established the Societa Nazionale di Musica, which later became the Societa Italiana di Musica Moderna and, eventually, Corporazione della Nuove Musiche, an organization affiliated with the International Society for Contemporary Music. Casella always promoted new music of the time, to the consternation of more conservative Italian composers of the time, particularly Respighi, Pizzetti and Zandonai. 

Casella is to be commended for his efforts to promote contemporary music, but his own is decidedly unadventuresome, often quoting from folk tunes and dances. His best-known work is Paganiniana,a four-movement orchestral suite commissioned by the Vienna Philharmonic to celebrate their 100th anniversary in 1942, and premiered by them with Karl Böhm conducting (an unlikely choice for this repertory!). This is based on themes by Paganini, music he used later in La rosa del sogna, one of his seven operas. Serenata, Op. 46, written in 1927, won the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia competition, sharing first prize with Bartok's String Quartet No. 3 (What an odd justaposition!!). Later Casella arranged it for chamber orchestra. There are five movements: Marcia, Notturno, Gavotta, Cavatina, and Finale. La Giara is a comedy ballet written in 1924 at the suggestion of Erik Satie and premiered that same year. The plot is simple; a wealthy man has a big jar which is to contain oil from the olive-harvest, but the jar broken and the only way to repair it is from the inside using a "wonder glue." But when the jar is repaired the repairman is inside, so the jar must be broken again to release him, although he does seem to enjoy for a time being inside. The symphonic suite was arranged at the request of Willem Mengelberg (who also was on the Philadelphia jury that selected Casella's Serenata, and Mengelberg conducted the premiere in New York. There are 8 movements to the 20-minute suite, highlighted by an exquisite tenor song, "The story of the girl seized by pirates."

There are two fine recordings of Paganiniana, with Muti and Ormandy conducting, and I particularly enjoy the dazzling live performance with Kondrashin and the Concertgebouw, unfortunately available only for a brief time (Philips 438 281). The orchestra on this new Naxos recording, "Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana," is second-rate at best; they struggle with the notes; brass in particular are taxed, and the performers not helped by a shallow, bass-light recording. The tenor soloist in the lovely tenor song in La Giara is totally undistinguished. An early London stereo LP set the standard for La Giara, with Fernando Previtali and the St. Cecilia Academy Orchestra of Rome, recorded in 1956 in fine early stereo. The tenor was Felice Luzi, and he was superb. This would be a great candidate for CD reissue. There is another recording of La Giara on La Bottega Discantica, and it is superb. It also has the advantage of completeness; it contains about ten minutes of music not included in the regular suite. The Symphonic Orchestra of the Province of Lecce is conducted by Marco Balderi, with the tenor soloist Riccardo Caruso (his three minutes of singing give him first listing in Schwann/Opus).(To digress, isn't it stupid for that publication to list soloists first in symphonies? If you're looking for Jascha Horenstein's recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 4, you'll find it listed under "M. Price."). The Discantica CD is beautifully recorded, with warmth and resonance lacking in the new Naxos. Not quite as good a performance as Previtali's, but it will do. (La Bottega Discantica 23). This is filled out with the Serenata, Op. 30, sounding much more impressive than it does on Naxos.

R.E.B. (Aug. 2001)