In 2017, Gianandrea Noseda will take over as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. One of the Italian conductor’s pet projects over the last five years is a set devoted to the little-known orchestral works of Alfredo Casella, recorded with his former band, the BBC Philharmonic. Although Casella is known better as a pianist and teacher, these four discs can change your mind about his merits as a composer.
The latest disc opens with Casella’s “Symphonic Fragments” from “Le couvent sur l’eau,” the ballet score he composed with writer Jean-Louis Vaudoyer. The work did not find favor with its intended patron, Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes, but these excerpts reveal a sparkling mastery of orchestral color. Casella’s gifts as a stylistic mimic are heard in the bombastic Russian-flavored “Marche de fête” and a Tchaikovsky-like use of four-hands celesta (requiring two players simultaneously), combined with two harps, glockenspiel and pizzicato strings in the “Pas des vieilles dames” (Dance of the Elderly Ladies). Soprano Gillian Keith sighs her way languidly through the part for wordless soprano in the “Barcarolle.”
Noseda brought along Casella’s “Elegia eroica,” op. 29, on his last visit to the NSO in November. Written during World War I and dedicated to “the memory of a soldier killed in war,” the piece opens with a howl of grief, the blaring of six horns accompanied by solemn timpani strokes, ululating woodwinds and the growling flourishes of the bass instruments. The mysterious B section, bristling with dissonances in the divisi strings, recalls Stravinsky’s pre-World War I ballets, and there is another rather magical use of celesta and harp to accompany a wistful flute solo in a music-box moment of nostalgia.
The least distinctive piece on this fourth volume is Casella’s first symphony, composed when he was still in his 20s. Though it is worth hearing, even Casella knew that it was not his best work, later repudiating it and using only the Adagio, with minor alterations, in his second symphony. Casella had a Washington connection through the support and friendship of the legendary music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge; Washingtonians will no doubt get to hear more of his music when Noseda comes to the NSO.
John Luther Adams composes in, for, and about environments. His pieces draw their cues from geologic forces, often tied to them in acoustic installations: the ebb and flow of tides, the shifting of tectonic plates. Washington’s Meridian Hill Park and other sites around the city hosted a performance of one of his outdoor pieces, “Sila: The Breath of the World,” last spring, but for the most part we have to listen to recordings to experience his music in these parts.
His latest new piece available on disc is “Ilimaq,” an Iñupiat word meaning spirit journey. According to an accompanying video, the piece was originally a site-specific installation piece, going back to the 1990s in Alaska. Then Glenn Kotche, who is among other things the drummer of the alternative rock band Wilco, approached Adams about commissioning a new composition for him. Adams revisited the earlier piece, adapting it for Kotche to play. “In Inuit tradition,” writes Adams, “the shaman rides the sound of the drum to and from the spirit world.”
Kotche’s virtuosic part on the drum set leads the listener through an electronic sound world created by Adams, “drawn from the natural world and from the inner resonances of the instruments themselves,” according to the composer. Although Adams no longer lives in Alaska, the journey of the drummer, implied by the movement names “Descent,” “Under the Ice,” and “Ascension,” seems to be underneath some Arctic ice mass. In the opening movement, the wild beating of the drum goes on for a quarter-hour, gradually immersed in electronic sounds, more or less like sound waves of various kinds passed through water.
The drum stops just before the second movement, “Under the Ice,” as the first clear sounds of water trickle into the texture, with what may be electronic or manipulated sounds something like dolphin or whale calls. Other percussion sounds gradually emerge, leading into a short section called “The Sunken Gamelan,” with what sounds like muffled hammering, typing, or tapping, accompanied by gong and cymbal sounds and some bubbling noise. The climax of the piece is “Untune the Sky,” a title drawn from the final line of John Dryden’s “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687,” a flailing, increasingly chaotic drum solo that goes on for a long time, like some crazed Buddy Rich improvisation. As we come out of the vision, the drums fade away, leaving increasingly high electronic sounds that disappear into silence.