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Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12 (1908-1909) [55:43]
A notte alta, for piano and orchestra, Op. 30bis (1917/1921)* [21:12]
*Sun Hee You (piano)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. 11-12 January 2009, Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome (symphony), 17-18 June 2009, OSR Studios, Rome (A notte alta)

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In my recent review of Casella’s Symphony No. 1 I applauded Naxos for their part in reviving this composer’s fortunes. And now, having lived with his Symphony No. 2 for several weeks – in both this and the Chandos version from Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Phil – I’m even more convinced that this is a major find. Although Casella’s admiration for Gustav Mahler is evident in the harmonic language and overall structure of this symphony, it’s all too easy to overstate the latter’s influence. In fact, one can just as easily hear Richard Strauss and a slew of Russian Romantics too. That said, his and Mahler’s second symphonies share the same key – C minor – and while Casella’s doesn’t end with a chorus it does have a splendid finale for full orchestra and organ.
Mahler’s shade does indeed haunt the first movement, although perhaps there’s more than a touch of Scriabin in those lush harmonies. And surely those beating timps at 5:32 evoke something of Respighi’s Roman trilogy? Despite these echoes the music is not at all overblown or derivative; it has real individuality and a pleasing economy of style. As for the orchestra, they’re recorded in a wide, deep acoustic that suits the symphony very well, especially in those thumping tuttis. But it’s the quiet, more reflective moments that tend to catch the ear - those rising figures reminiscent of Strauss at his most noble. Structurally, this music hangs together pretty well, but then La Vecchia doesn’t allow it to stutter or stall. Noseda’s no slouch either – he’s a minute faster in this movement – but really I’d be hard-pressed to choose between either at this point.
The second movement is no less impressive, building to a series of vaunting climaxes, the Roman brass and percussion thrillingly caught. And while Naxos recordings can be a little bright and shallow, this one has plenty of warmth and weight. There’s lots of subtlety as well, the jaunty little tune that appears at 4:10 much better balanced – and more characterful – than it is on the Chandos recording. Even the cymbals and bass drum are more tellingly presented on the Naxos disc, which gives La Vecchia a slender lead in this movement at least.
And if you think you’ve heard the Adagio before, it’s because Casella lifted it from his First Symphony, albeit rescored. From its muted – somewhat martial – beginning to its lovely string tunes and beyond, the heart of this symphony beats with a strength and ardour that is glorious to behold. La Vecchia judges the ebb and flow of this music to perfection, the disruptive timps as menacing as one could wish for. And as much as I admire Noseda in this movement – a swift 10:48 to La Veccha’s more leisurely 13:01 – that rising theme just doesn’t take wing in the same way it does on the Naxos disc. La Vecchia gives the music plenty of room to breathe, and that really pays dividends here. So, the Romans take the palm once more.
The strange mood of the final movement, that Mahlerian ‘Callots manier’ if you will, is very well conveyed in both readings, but if anything the Italian orchestra sound especially febrile, the brass glowering even more ferociously than they do for Noseda. In many ways the sharper, more analytical Naxos recording serves this music well; indeed, it’s hard to imagine the trudging brass and haloed cymbals better captured than they are here. As for the expansive Epilogo section – cued separately on the Chandos disc – both conductors certainly major on the mistico, the Manchester organ notable for its impact. This echt-Mahlerian apotheosis has all the implacable grandeur of a galleon, its sails unfurling, its prow wheeling towards home. Both Noseda and La Vecchia are fine helmsmen, and steer with authority and skill. Even so, the latter makes the crack of wind in canvas seem even more dramatic, those joyous bells and orchestral billows superbly done.
The filler, A notte alta, is an unsettling – and accomplished – piece of nachtmusik. Right from the start the shimmer of gongs captures the music’s deeply ambivalent mood. The Korean pianist Sun Hee You is sympathetically recorded, his largely subdued contributions adding splashes of colour to an otherwise dark canvas. This is Casella in a grittier frame of mind – there are searing sonorities and dynamic spikes here – but, as expected, La Vecchia and his Roman band make the most of this diverting oddity.
Time to tot up the scores. It’s a tough call, but La Vecchia’s world premiere recording – taped a year before Noseda’s – really does deserve the winner’s pennant. True, both conductors illuminate the symphony in different ways, but the Naxos version scores very highly in terms of opulence, weight and telling insights. Noseda is just too brisk at times, whereas La Vecchia is more relaxed, bringing out the many felicities of this score. As for fillers, Chandos offer a cracking performance of Scarlattiana, played by Martin Roscoe – but then their disc costs twice as much. Honestly, both recordings are excellent, and I wouldn’t want to be without either.
Dan Morgan
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