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Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Symphonic Fragments from Le Couvent sur l’eau * (1912-13) [23.44]
Elegia eroica for large orchestra (1916) [15.08]
Symphony No.1 (1905-06) [38.00]
Gillian Keith (soprano)*
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. MediaCity UK, Salford, UK, 12-13 September 2013, 11-12 February 2015 (Symphony No.1)
CHANDOS CHAN10880 [77.14]

After a two year hiatus Chandos return to mining the rich seam of Casella's orchestral music (see review of Volumes 1-3). The first two works were safely 'in the can' back in 2013 but for whatever reason schedules permitted Casella's First Symphony to be recorded earlier in 2015. In the meantime the Naxos series of much the same repertoire has forged ahead which, one suspects, leaves this Chandos survey some way behind. Will anyone but the most ardent admirers of the composer of these performers really have space in their collection for a second set of Casella? Certainly, this has been my position - partly predicated by cost. Until this disc appeared in my in-tray I had not heard any of the earlier volumes in the Chandos series.

In direct comparison with Francesco La Vecchia's Rome performances on Naxos there are interesting contrasts although in the main it is a matter of degree and the relative strengths of each recording serve different elements of the music better. La Vecchia's Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma gives little if anything in terms of individual virtuosity to Noseda's BBC Philharmonic. The Naxos recording is pretty good too - better than pretty good actually - but lacking the effortless sophistication that Chandos seem able to produce at will. This is a 'standard' Chandos 24-bit stereo recording - not one of their SACDs and I have to say this format sounds better on my system which lacks any 5.1 surround capability. Collectively the BBCPO is a slightly more refined ensemble and the recording, whilst detailed, allows the orchestra to come across as a more homogenised integrated whole. Whether this serves all of the music presented here to equal benefit is open to debate.

The criticism most often levelled at Casella is that he was something of a musical chameleon. He embraced a wide range of musical styles to the point that it can be hard to know which is the 'real' musical voice of Casella. This holds true even across the decade of writing that encompasses the three works recorded here from the Francophile ballet excerpts Le Couvent sur l'eau to the surging Romantic Slavic drama of the Symphony No.1. The disc opens with the wholly charming Symphonic fragments from Le Couvent sur l'eau. The French title and the dedication "a mon cher ami Pierre Monteux" gives more than a hint of the gravitational pull of the music. According to the interesting, well-written liner by Gerald Larner, this suite (in all but name) was once popular. Such are the quirks of fate - it certainly deserves to be better known but this is a piece that has fallen far from any kind of standard repertory and indeed has not featured in the Naxos survey. The urbane sophistication and brilliantly effective scoring shows this Chandos disc, both playing and engineering, at its best. Casella re-ordered the fragments from their original narrative positions in the score for maximum musical effect. The music is more overtly colourful and picturesque than the other two works on the disc. The opening Marche de fête is a sterner procession than the festival of the title might imply - more a latter-day march of the charioteers but the following Ronde d'enfants has all the scampering light-hearted counterpoint the listener might expect. In the third movement - marked Barcarolle and Sarabande Casella introduces a wordless soprano in the former, sung here by Gillian Keith. She has an ideally light quality but a rather fluttery vibrato which is not wholly to my taste. In the remainder of the suite there are significant and well-played opportunities for string solos and some delightful touches in the orchestration. Indeed, it is in the passages of lighter textures and greater musical restraint that the work and this performance make their impact.

Both of the remaining works have appeared in the Naxos series too and are more overtly serious. The Elegia eroica is - as Larner describes it - "A musical monument to an unknown soldier". The work opens with a searingly dramatic gesture; clashing descending horns over shuddering basses and anguished strings - "painfully dissonant memories of warfare" is Larner's description. A steady underlying pulse gives the music a sense of a funereal march which is both an evocation of war and a lamenting memorial. La Vecchia on Naxos is remarkably good here - as is the Naxos engineering which although less integrated in the sound gives the playing an immediacy and primary-colour graphic quality that the more 'controlled' Chandos version cannot supplant. Likewise the BBC Philharmonic's playing is technically assured but emotionally less compelling. Written at the height of Italy's involvement in World War I this is a strikingly sincere work which benefits from the directness of La Vecchia's approach. For all of Casella's rejection of Italy's operatic heritage and his wish to create a school of purely instrumental and symphonic composition this work shows that he had a powerful sense of extra-musical drama and how to evoke that in music.

This quality was also present in the earlier Symphony No.1 which completes the disc. Written when Casella was in his mid-twenties, this work exudes confidence, even bravura, in abundance. Remarkably, for a young composer, the work was published the same year but, according to Larner, by the time of its first performance a few months later, Casella came to regard it as "very juvenile". Without doubt that is an overly harsh assessment by its creator although in the best traditions of youthful excess he does like to pile effect on effect and climax on climax. He wrote the work in 1906 in the thrall of an interest in Russian music - specifically Rimsky-Korsakov - fired by his friendship with Ravel who was a fellow member of Fauré's composition class at the Paris Conservatoire. The two budding composers used to play piano duet arrangements of works by the likes of Borodin, Mussorgsky and Balakirev as well as Rimsky-Korsakov. These influences appear in rather undigested form in the Symphony. From the gloomy cello/bass led opening answered by rocking woodwind and harp the character is clear - "On the Steppes of Central Paris" perhaps. Accept these influences for what they are and the work bursts with youthful energy and confidence. Casella's orchestration piles instruments on instrument, sometimes rather chaotically but often rather excitingly. Again, it is a matter of small degree, but the La Vecchia performance seems to makes a virtue of the excess whereas Noseda relatively underplays them by taking the rougher edges off the drama. This is also reflected in the overall timings; generally La Vecchia is broader - perhaps underlying the heroic/epic character of several passages with Noseda fleeter and more overtly athletic. Both approaches work - and it is a joy to have the chance to make the comparison - but I do like La Vecchia.

Casella lifted the second movement Adagio with barely a note changed and reused it as the slow movement of his Second Symphony. This tells you that as far as he was concerned the earlier symphony was a musical resource to be quarried for future use. Certainly, this movement is the most technically assured of the symphony but I do enjoy the whole work and for listeners who respond to big confident symphonies written in a late-Romantic spirit there is much pleasure to be had. Casella uses relatively high levels of dissonance - if one is comparing his music to the Russian Symphonists - but without the angst of Germanic composers of the time. This is music which glitters in its dissonance - Respighi is often considered the main orchestral composer of early twentieth century Italian music. He was four years Casella's senior and by the time Casella was writing this symphony Respighi had yet to write any of the works on which his current fame rests let alone anything of such sweep or confidence.

This is a valuable release simply because it provides the listener with viable alternative versions to music that deserves to be better known. For the duplicated works my allegiance remains with the Naxos recordings - just. A typical Chandos release combining interesting repertoire with sophisticated technical and musical presentation.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Ian Lace (Recording of the Month) and Dan Morgan




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