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Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12 (1908-10) [52:22]
Symphonic Fragments from La donna serpente, Op. 50, (1928-31) [10:17]
Sinfonieorchester Münster/Fabrizio Ventura
rec. live, October, 2016, Theater Münster, im Rahmen eines Sinfoniekonzertes

Last year I reviewed a Chandos reissue of the complete symphonies and Symphonic Fragments from La donna serpente, Op. 50  of Alfredo Casella, with Gianandrea Noseda directing the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It was my first encounter with the music of this Italian composer and, of the three symphonies, it was No. 2 which engaged me the most. I was astonished that this marvellous work had languished in obscurity for so long. Then, in the space of two years, two recordings emerged. Noseda’s interpretation was set down in 2010, pipped to the post a year earlier by a Naxos version from the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma with Francesco La Vecchia. This latest version, released by ARS Produktion in SACD sound, and performed by the Sinfonieorchester Münster under Fabrizio Ventura, truly establishes this strikingly inspired work in its rightful and deserved place in the recorded orchestral repertoire.

The Second Symphony occupied the composer between 1908-1910. Richly orchestrated, a Mahlerian influence is certainly present. Casella met Mahler in 1909, and the older composer was amazed to learn that the younger man was fully acquainted with his symphonies, and in 1910 Casella arranged for Mahler to conduct his Second Symphony (Resurrection) at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. Six days later Casella premiered his own Second Symphony at the Salle Gaveau.

Casella dedicated the Second Symphony to George Enescu. At fifty-two minutes, its hefty proportions are emotionally charged and wide-ranging. The composer cast it in five movements, the fifth being a linked Epilogue, setting the seal on this monumental canvas in consolatory mode. Ventura’s opening, with the tolling of bells, creates a palpable atmosphere of foreboding and portent. As the movement gets underway, the combative elements of high drama alternating with ardent lyricism provide a potent mix. Rhythmically propulsive ostinato rhythms underpin the Scherzo, with a cheery tarantella middle section offering some welcome contrast. The Mahlerian slow movement is the emotional heart of the work. Casella purloined it from his First Symphony and reworked it. I love the way Ventura shapes and builds it up, inspiring his players to deliver a reading of poetic eloquence and intensity. The beguiling violin solo at 6:40 is ardently etched. There’s a tangible menace in the grotesque march which follows, with the heavy brass growls making a forceful impact. The serene Epilogue offers some peace and repose at the end, with those bells from the first movement making a final appearance.

The composer turned to the Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806) for the libretto of his only opera La Donna Serpente, the story of a princess cursed and turned into a snake. Wagner also based his early opera Die Feen on the story. Its magical and comic elements attracted Casella. He extracted the Symphonic Fragments from the opera, and organised them into two series, the first dedicated to Fritz Reiner, and the second to Bernardino Molinari. Regrettably, this recording only gives us the first series. Although these are only short pieces, they are brilliantly and colourfully orchestrated, and offer some lighter relief after the more intensely absorbing symphony.

Unlike the other two recordings, this latest one from ARS Produktion is in SACD sound. It is sonically superb. This gives the recording the edge in terms of greater dynamic range and presence. The engineers have achieved an ideal balance, opening out the perspective and offering profound spatial depth. Another benefit is the revealing of orchestral detail and colour. The snarling bass at the start of the opening movement is impressive by any standards and an omen for what is to follow.

As convincing and rewarding as this latest recording is, I wouldn’t like to be without either of the other two alternatives. Of these, I do have a slight preference for the Noseda/Chandos over the La Vecchia/Naxos. The reason for this lies with the second movement, which lacks drive and forward momentum in the Naxos version, adding two minutes onto the movement's timing. Noseda’s tighter reading I find more compelling. At the end of the day, a deciding factor for any potential punters will probably be the couplings. The Naxos offers A notte alta for piano and orchestra, Op. 30bis, an engaging twenty one minute work in a sure-footed account with Sun Hee You at the piano.  Chandos gives us Scarlattiana, a work for piano and orchestra with Martin Roscoe, or alternatively the two series of Symphonic Fragments from ‘La Donna Serpente' on the later 2CD reissue version.

Stephen Greenbank



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