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|2. Portrait Of Galatea|
|3. Blades Of Grass|
|7. The Acadian Land|
Romeo Cascarino, a virtually self-taught Philadelphia composer, was fiercely dedicated to the principles of tonality and the infinite beauty of orchestral color. His four orchestral works, written between 1948 and 1960, as well as the two chamber works al
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'Pygmalion' (1956) recounts the Greek myth of the sculptor Pygmalion and his infatuation with his own marble creation, the beautiful Galatea. It was intended as a ballet and has been staged only once, apparently, in Philadelphia in 1959. A companion piece 'Portrait of Galatea' (1945) preceded the ballet by four years. This recording is from the first performance ever of that work and of its predecessor 'Prospice' (1945) which was written just after Cascarino returned from service in World War II. 'Prospice' is based on the Browning poem of that name, which opens:
"Fear death?--to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe ... "
Its first measures have harmonies redolent of the Copland scores of the previous decade.
'Blades of Grass' (1945) is a seven-minute mini-concerto for English horn, harp and strings. It was inspired by Carl Sandberg's 'Grass' which is 'a meditation about men dying in battle.' The plangent lines given the English horn soloist are melancholy in the extreme and are played here beautifully by Geoffrey Deemer, principal in the Philadelphia Chamber Players. (A note about the orchestra used on this recording. The Philadelphia Philharmonic is an ad hoc group whose core is the Philadelphia Chamber Players; its roster is extended by use of some of the many fine free-lance musicians in the Philadelphia area. They sound marvelous.)
'Meditation and Elegy' (2000) is an orchestration for strings of two piano pieces Cascarino wrote in his teens. Both pieces are slow and meditative, with lush string sonorities and often modal melodies. 'The Acadian Land' (1959-60) was premiered in a shortened version by the then New Orleans Philharmonic. It was inspired by Longfellow's 'Evangeline' and of course had particular interest for the Louisianans as their Cajun culture is based on the Acadian culture of Nova Scotia. 'The Acadian Land' is contemplative and melancholy.
Most of the music here is fairly slow. The main up-tempo bits are in 'Prospice.' Admittedly the texture and harmonic language of these works are lush and romantic, but more than 75 minutes of ruminative music might be a bit much for one sitting. Still, the playing of the Philadelphia Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta is gorgeous and the music qua music engaging. Most will, I suspect, find themselves becoming tranquilly contemplative on listening to these works.
Cascarino's works may one day be receiving more attention and scheduled on more programs as an outstanding example of American 20th century polyphony.
In its day, the 1940s and '50s, this music would have been considered as modernist as Copland's. He encouraged Cascarino after seeing some of his early pieces, but now, over 50 years after it was written, we may also hear a strongly nostalgic vein running through it. Think Copland without the spiky bits; the epic, archaic and, to our ears today, filmic qualities of Respighi in mythic mode (Cascarino breathes orchestrally as naturally as Respighi); and the understated radiance of Vaughan Williams's ruminations. Also there's a strong leaning towards quartal harmony, as in Hindemith and Bloch, though without Hindemith's tendency to cool leanness (which has a beauty of its own).
Instead Cascarino goes in the opposite direction, creating soaring melodies and fabulously colored yet lucid textures that feel as though they've always existed, just waiting to be plucked from some archetypal pool. It is to be hoped that this recording will assist in a re-assessment of his historical significance, as yet overlooked, as his small list of compositions belong to the idiosyncratically American neo-Romanticism of Barber and Hanson which has experienced a restoration in dignity after being rubbished by the modish serialists of Cascarino's own time. Along with Barber, Hanson, Korngold and a few others, Cascarino refused to give into the expectation that to be taken seriously he must relinquish accessible tonal melody and harmonic and orchestral beauty. For example, he's unafraid to highlight an inner viola or cello cantabile line with the harp, a definite no-no if you were a Boulanger and/or Stravinsky acolyte. In fact, all Cascarino's lines sing smoothly and beautifully. Yes, there are a few moments of more upbeat music, but only a few and they're of a nature that doesn't interrupt the overall feeling of harmonious serenity. This isn't intended to be a downer, but many tracks are also music one could comfortably play when grieving, similar to classics like Barber's Adagio, without becoming maudlin with self-pity.
Ultimately these comparisons are just mental signposts of the kind we may use when comparing, say, early Richard Strauss with Wagner. Both were unique, and so is Cascarino, who sings very much in his own voice. It's a great pity he didn't write more, though that's because he took immense care to give every note meaning, and for that we must be grateful. What we are given on this CD is a long-overdue opened treasure casket, played exquisitely by Falletta and her orchestra, and excellently recorded. One I won't overplay as I don't want its very special qualities to pall with over-familiarity, but one I'll dream to, and one to relish.