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Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Concerto per archi, Op. 40b (1923) [27:57]
Cinque pezzi, Op. 34 (1920) [27:03]
Guido TURCHI (1916-2010)
Concerto breve (1947) [15:54]
Quartetto di Venezia (Andrea Vio (violin I), Alberto Battiston (violin II), Giancarlo Di Vacri (viola), Angelo Zanin (cello))
rec. Area Studio, Preganziol, Treviso, Italy, 21-22 August 2012, 7-8 November 2012.
world première recording of the Concerto per archi
NAXOS 8.573019 [70:54]

A quartet of the highest order, this CD exposes the extraordinary musical flair and technical skill of the Quartetto di Venezia as they perform the works of these two twentieth century Italian composers. They play with zeal and intelligence, making this is a disc to treasure. 

From a musical family, the Italian composer of the ‘Generazione dell’Ottanta’, Alfredo Casella entered the Conservatoire de Paris in 1896 to study piano with Louis Diémer and conducting under Gabriel Fauré. After the Paris years and travelling to Germany and Russia, Casella acquired an eclectic style and a penchant for chromatic dissonance and stylistic experiment. He founded La Società Nazionale di Musica with Malipiero and the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio in 1917 and revived the music of Vivaldi. Casella was eager to understand and embrace Italy’s post-Paganini musical style and fused this with his cosmopolitan influences.

Giving Russian bombast and German heaviness an Italian lilt and poetry, Casella forged his own characteristic style which the Quartetto di Venezia sensitively evokes. The influence of Stravinsky and Schoenberg reverberates throughout Concerto per archi (Op. 40) and Cinque Pezzi (Op. 34), but they’re certainly not a sentimental gushes. In his 1922 essay entitled ‘What is Art’, Casella suggests that: ‘Art in one way or another, signifies “variation” and every artist “varies” his predecessor’. In this way, Casella absorbed the styles and ideas of old masters, but does not merely imitate: he renders new with the particularities of his time, environment and personal experiences. Fundamental to understanding Casella’s compositional purpose, is his emphatic opening to this essay, where he asserts: “Disregarding all past definitions of art, be they religious, moral or philosophic, let us postulate that art is Life in the highest sense of the word, seeing that it is a pure creative activity of the human spirit.” Understanding Casella’s artistic instinct, the Quartetto di Venezia unveils the amoral beauty of his music.

In the Concerto per archi, Op. 40, they play with vigour and conviction exuding an admixture of grit and melodious lyricism. Creating a sort of earthy-ethereal sound, the Quartetto di Venezia successfully communicate Casella’s intuitive vision. To open the wraithlike second movement, the quartet evokes a haunting, diaphanous beauty with the glassy sounds of violins and viola on the backbone of a pizzicato bass line. Almost imagists in their ability to conjure a peculiar picture in the imagination of the listener, the musicians here are sublime and bring to mind the poetry of Ezra Pound. This contrasts with the utterly gripping last movement which hints at the baroque. With their characteristically majestic tone, the quartet brings out the rich colours and daring fancies of this piece. These musicians are never distracted and retain a sense of the expansive architecture and overall arch of the piece. They allow the listener to absorb the caliginous beauty of the writing and not be obfuscated by the more scrambling or atonally jarring sections. I must also add that Giancarlo di Vacri’s performance on the viola is especially memorable.

Beginning with a frantic cacophony, held together by a percussive pizzicato - excellently performed by Angelo Zanin on the cello - and interspersed with limpid moments of tranquil song-like reflections, Casella’s Cinque Pezzi, Op. 34 is like a mirage of self-reflective, refracting segments. The second movement has an unsettling rocking rhythm and the quartet eerily closes in on the listener who feels like William Blake’s ‘little girl lost’. This is swiftly followed by a carnivalesque danse macabre. One thinks of Saint-Saëns, both of his own Danse Macabre and the Fossils movement from Le carnival des animaux. It makes for a chilling recall of the shadowy second movement. It finishes with a jaunty inversion of the night-circus dance. This piece is a layered gossamer, an internal dialogue exposing Casella’s very own stream of consciousness. 

Guido Turchi’s Concerto breve is both tight and concise. Written in memory of Bela Bartók, this relates to Casella’s Concerto per archi in that it is like a large architectural structure which leaves free scope for imaginative expansion. The cello plummets into its woody depths and with vibrato and glissando, the atmospheric fabric of the piece is heightened. As it progresses it unravels a convoluting and layered texture which is constantly in motion. Yet at the end of the Allegro it seems still, like a feline creature waiting to pounce. After vivacious pizzicato flurries and alarming alacrity, the piece slinks away rather unexpectedly. The Quartetto Vivaldi also recorded this piece in 1957 and it is worth comparing the two performances.

With an official recognition from the President of the Republic of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, the well-established and highly acclaimed Quartetto di Venezia celebrates their twenty-fifth anniversary season. In this CD this chamber group confidently adds to its already varied and extensive repertoire which ranges from Boccherini to Saint-Saëns and is a most welcome new release.  

Lucy Jeffery