Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12 (1908-1909) [49:20]
Scarlattiana, Op. 44 (1926)* [27:24]
*Martin Roscoe (piano)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. 12 November 2009 (Scarlattiana), 12-13 January 2010 (Symphony), Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, UK
CHANDOS CHAN 10605 [76:58]

The resurgence of interest in the music of Alfredo Casella has already yielded some fine recordings. Naxos are leading the charge with his Symphony No.1review – and Symphony No. 2review – both with Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. Not to forget the Symphony No. 3 on CPO (see review). Now Chandos are playing catch-up with Noseda’s reading of the latter, available on CD and as a download. I’ve been listening to the disc for several weeks now, but as I’m keen to hear more downloads – especially high- resolution ones – I’ve decided to review the 24bit/96kHz download instead.

To get the most from these flac files you’ll need a good-quality 24bit/96kHz sound card and a suitable program, such as the free VLC player. Adding a separate DAC (digital to analogue converter) between your PC/Mac and audio system is even more desirable. That may sound a tad expensive – the new Arcam R-DAC retails for around £300 – but then these high-res downloads don’t come cheap either. At £15.99 these Chandos files cost around 50% more than the physical CD – based on current Amazon UK prices – and other labels/sites charge a hefty premium as well. So, is it worth the extra? That’s what I intend to find out.

As an admirer and advocate of Gustav Mahler’s work, Casella was clearly influenced by the latter’s harmonic language and symphonic structures. There are other late-Romantic echoes in this music as well, but for all its references the huge Second Symphony strikes me as highly individual. And while Chandos recordings are known for their dynamic range, this high-res download is rather special. The sound stage seems broader and deeper, bass is much better defined, and instrumental timbres are much more faithfully rendered. Indeed, the start of this symphony is sensational, such is its enhanced power and presence. And while La Vecchia’s reading benefits from being a touch more expansive, the extra ambienflt information on these files – not to mention the Stygian bass drum – adds immeasurably to one’s enjoyment of the score.

The busy Allegro that follows has remarkable detail and weight as well, the big tuttis unleashed with some ferocity. And yet this can’t be dismissed as a flash-in-the-pan ‘hi-fi spectacular’, as the technology is placed firmly – and continuously – at the service of the music The brass sound even more transported than before, the cymbal-capped perorations utterly fearless. As for that persistent little tune that rises from the orchestra, I remarked that it seemed more characterful on the La Vecchia disc. Now I’m not so sure; it’s as if the perspectives on this recording have been tweaked, so now one gets a much more vivid, three-dimensional sound picture, the band heard as if from a good seat in the stalls. Sonically, recordings don’t come much better than this; in fact, this download is easily on a par with the best SACDs I’ve heard.

And although Noseda doesn’t dawdle, the central Adagio builds most beautifully. True, that melting tune still lacks the radiance it has under La Vecchia, but really that matters less now than it did in my original review. As for the BBC Philharmonic, they play with passion and bite, and the results are just glorious. The martial theme that opens the Finale is even more striking than before, rhythms taut and timps as crisp as one could wish for. The dragging brass are reach-out-and-touch tangible, the plucked strings and harp swirls much more holographic than they are on disc. As for those great tectonic shifts, they’ll push your equipment to the limit.

As I suggested in my original review, the Epilogo – cued separately – is an echt-Mahlerian apotheosis. It may not have a celestial chorus, but from the soft, Saint-Saëns-like organ entry it does build to a heaven-storming climax. The extended bass really pays dividends here, creating a broad, deep swell on which the orchestra rides with aplomb. As for those joyful bells, they have a frisson that one simply doesn’t hear on the CD, the final bars overwhelming in their scale and impact.

The neoclassical Scarlattiana may be built along more modest lines, but it’s no less impressive. The Sinfonia begins quietly enough – pizzicato basses deep and nicely rounded, woodwind very well focused – but then Martin Roscoe ups the tempo with his flamboyant piano entry. It turns into a good-natured tussle between soloist and orchestra, both of which are naturally balanced and recorded. The Minuet is more gracefully done, Roscoe sensitive to the scale and style of the dance. The added ambience allows instrumental timbres to register with remarkable clarity, especially in the contrasting Capriccio and Pastorale. As for the Finale, it’s a zesty little number, Roscoe effervescent throughout.

La Vecchia’s world-premiere recording of the symphony is still most desirable, and I wouldn’t be without it. Nor would I forego Noseda’s version which – in this download at least – is now the front-runner. It’s a huge technical achievement, the music presented with an unfettered energy that has to be heard to be believed. Clearly, not all high-res downloads are going to be this good, but the few I’ve heard – from HDTT, for example – suggests they have much to offer. So, is this one worth the extra hassle and expense? Emphatically, yes.

Dan Morgan

Is this flac worth the extra hassle and expense? Emphatically, yes.