July 21, 2011


Alfredo Casella: Symphony No 3; Elegia eroica. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

Ernst Krenek: Symphony No. 4; Concerto Grosso. NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Alun Francis. CPO. $16.99.

Echoes: Classic Works Transformed—Music of David Schiff, Bright Sheng, David Stock, John Harbison, Samuel Jones, Aaron Jay Kernis and Gerard Schwarz. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

     The Romantic era is not the only musical period in which significant rediscovery is in progress. The so-called “modern” era (say, from Mahler onward) has become far more readily accepted in concert performances and recordings, with the result that there is increasing interest in offering some works outside what could be called the “modern mainstream.” The symphonies of Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) are examples, and Naxos has now made all three of them available – the first “Casella cycle” ever recorded. The final symphony, written on the eve of World War II in 1939-40, was composed for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony and requires considerable orchestral virtuosity. Structured in the traditional four movements and running the traditional length of a Romantic-era symphony (about 45 minutes), Casella’s Third is a throwback in some ways, its melodic and harmonic worlds largely harking back to the 19th century. It is also a work of considerable emotional scope – again, in line with symphonies of the previous century. The symphony is very well-wrought, and it certainly contains elements showing that Casella was not unaware of 20th-century musical developments. It would be overstating to say that this is a great work, but it is an impressive one, and the emotional content of the Andante molto moderato, quasi adagio slow movement is particularly affecting. Francesco La Vecchia conducts the symphony with considerable empathy, and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma plays it very well. The ensemble also does a fine job with the extended lament from 1916, Elegia eroica, which Casella said was written in memory of a soldier killed in war – this is distinctly a work of World War I. The single soldier referred to by Casella is intended to stand for all Italian soldiers who had already died in the “Great War,” and the piece is a suitable lament, conveying strong emotions through well-controlled orchestration and a pervasive sense of solemnity.

     Only a few years separate Casella’s Elegia eroica from the Concerto Grosso, Op. 25, no. 2 by Ernst Krenek (1900-1991), but they were years of considerable musical as well as geopolitical turmoil: Krenek’s work dates to 1924, a time at which serialism and atonality were rampant and neoclassicism was on the rise. Krenek himself was in a kind of neo-Baroque period in the 1920s, and this work was decidedly part of it. The title is in no sense ironic: Krenek here revives the form of the Baroque Concerto Grosso, which was the “concerto for orchestra” of its time, and produces a pleasant and elegant work that gives particular prominence to a solo violin (Volker Worlitzsch), viola (Dimitar Penkov) and cello (Nikolai Schneider) while also requiring virtuosity from the NDR Radiophilharmonie as a whole. The orchestra faces even more challenges in Krenek’s Symphony No. 4 (1947), which here receives its world première recording. Krenek wrote eight symphonies, five of them numbered and the other three given titles; but the Fourth was long thought to have been lost – until it was rediscovered five years ago by the Krenek Institute. This is a very complex work that juxtaposes tonal and atonal elements and includes harmonic and other compositional techniques that combine elements of the 19th century with ones of the 20th. It is in some ways a hodgepodge, as if Krenek had not fully assimilated all the forms and approaches that he uses or to which he alludes; in other ways, it is a fascinating mid-20th-century look at all the influences on which a composer could draw. Very difficult to play and not always easy to listen to, it gets a rousing reading under the baton of Alun Francis – but as interesting as the work is, it seems unlikely to become a staple of concerts or recordings anytime soon.

     Krenek was far from the only composer looking back as well as ahead in his works. A new Naxos CD called Echoes deliberately mixes the old and new in ways chosen by conductor Gerard Schwarz, whose Concerto for Brass Quintet and Orchestra (after Handel) is the longest work here and the climax of a CD that includes six other compositions in which contemporary composers consider and reconsider older models. The choice of those models is as interesting as some of the works themselves. David Schiff (born 1945) bases Infernal on Stravinsky; Bright Sheng (born 1955) bases Black Swan on Brahms; and David Stock (born 1939) takes Plenty of Horn loosely from Jeremiah Clarke. But the models, or initial influences, of the other composers are a bit more surprising. For John Harbison (born 1938), Rubies is “after Thelonius Monk”; for Samuel Jones (born 1935), Benediction is based on the only piece for which Peter C. Lutkin (1858-1931) is known today, The Lord Bless You and Keep You (which virtually every church choir sings). The seventh work on this CD, and the only one not written in 2006, is Musica Celestis (1991) by Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1960) and is simply designated “version for strings” – Kernis originally wrote the work for string quartet. All the pieces on this CD are short; only the Schwarz concerto lasts more than 10 minutes. The composers use their models in many different ways, sometimes seeking similar sonority, sometimes using the older composers’ harmonic language, sometimes creating something new that is based at best loosely on what was written before. Except for the theme of transformation of older composers’ works for the 20th and 21st centuries, there is nothing in particular that unifies this disc, which is best regarded as a sampler of the styles of some rather well-known contemporary composers. The CD gets a (+++) rating for exposing listeners to an uneven but mostly worthwhile set of short works that collectively show the many ways in which today’s composers build on, or around, the legacy of those who came before.

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