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Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, op.12 [52.22]
La Donna Serpente: Symphonic Fragments, Suite No. 1 [10.07]
Sinfonieorchester Münster/ Fabrizio Ventura
rec. live, Theater Münster, Münster 25-26, 30 October, 2016
Reviewed in SACD stereo

This is, I think, the third recording of Casella’s Second (and probably finest) Symphony. The world premiere recording, set down in 2009, was made by The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, under Francesco La Vecchia (Naxos 8.572414), a century after the work’s composition. A well-regarded recording was made – in characteristic Chandos sound – by Gianandrea Noseda, with the BBC Philharmonic (CHAN 10605 – also available as part of the complete Symphonies CHAN10895(2)). That the symphony has been taken up a century after its composition points to its genuine merits as a significant addition to the late romantic repertoire, and it would be splendid if the symphony were to gain at least a toehold in regular concert repertoire. There is so much to enjoy.

Casella was – in this work – deeply influenced by his experience of hearing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in Paris. Casella was an early and committed Mahlerian, and the first movement is thoroughly Mahlerian, including a least one direct quotation. But the episodic, ‘get everything in’ approach demonstrates the inspiration at every stage. In the new recording, Ventura emphasises very strongly this aspect of the work – La Vecchia, throughout his recording, is generally more lyrical, and Noseda a fraction less weighty, but swifter: each approach is legitimate, and with its own benefits.

The second movement brings a contrast in approaches. Timing is suggestive: Ventura takes 8.30, Noseda 8.46, and La Vecchia approaches the scherzo in a stately 10.24. The urgency on the new recording is viscerally exciting – the drive is effective, with some characterful brass. Very effective is the Latin (almost Spanish) middle section which benefits very much from effective pacing.

The third movement is marked Adagio quasi andante. La Vecchia is more adagio than andante, Noseda rather andante with little hint of adagio. Ventura perhaps is closest to the composer’s intentions, and he maintains an ominous quality in the opening. The final movements have the darkness-to light trajectory familiar from the Resurrection symphony, perhaps less monumental and, to me, less memorable. Mahler was a great composer, and Casella a very good one. It is difficult to define the difference, but put the two symphonies side-by-side and the difference is palpable.

For many, a deciding factor in choosing between discs would be the choice of coupling. Noseda chooses Scarlattiana, perhaps Casella’s best-known work, with Martin Roscoe a admirable pianist; La Vecchia chooses one of Casella’s most intimate and pieces, A note alta for Piano and Orchestra, which is splendidly and movingly played by Sun Hee You. The Ventura disc provides fragments of Casella’s opera La Donna Serpente, characteristic and enjoyable but not very memorable.

A strength of the new recording is the depth and power offered by the SACD recording, and the obvious insights and commitment of the playing. The Sinfonieorchester Münster represent a useful reminder of the musical wealth offered by Germany’s regional orchestras, with few slips, despite the recordings being made live.

Which recording to choose? I am glad I heard this, and I shall return to it. I would not wish to be without La Vecchia as a reminder of other approaches and its wonderful coupling. If one set of Cassella were enough, then the Noseda two-disc compilation of the three symphonies, together with La Donna Serpente fragments would probably be the best choice, but anyone who buys the Ars disc will find so much to enjoy.

Michael Wilkinson
Prevous review: Stephen Greenbank



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