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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 - Suite No.1, (1928-31) [10:17]
Sinfonieorchester Münster/Fabrizio Ventura
rec. live, Theater Münster, Germany, 25, 26, & 30 October, 2016
Reviewed in stereo

The last decade or so has seen a considerable rehabilitation on disc of the orchestral works of Alfredo Casella. Symphonic cycles together with additional orchestral and concertante works have been forthcoming from Chandos with Gianandrea Noseda conducting the BBC PO and from Naxos with Francesco La Vecchia conducting the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. In many ways these cycles are complementary, emphasising, as they do, different aspects of Casella's music to the ultimate benefit of the works.

As far as I am aware this new disc is the first to offer Casella's opulent, often epic, Second Symphony in SA-CD 5.1 format which, one would imagine, would serve this style of music well. Casella wrote this symphony under the thrall of Mahler in general and the senior composer’s Resurrection Symphony in particular and there is without doubt a sense of grandiloquence in the score that seeks to match the senior composer's visionary style. I have heard some but not all of Noseda’s cycle - the 2nd Symphony is a work I have not heard conducted by him - but I do know the La Vecchia for direct comparison.

Overall, I have to say I prefer La Vecchia both as a performance, interpretation and even as a recording. There is something oddly unsubtle about this new disc. The sound matches the interpretation - it is often big and dynamic but somehow cluttered and unstructured. I do not get much of a sense that there is very much control of the basic shape of the music from phrase to phrase or even across whole movements. A lot of the time the music simply feels 'noisy' - a sense I did not get from La Vecchia. The recording is taken from live concerts - there are quite a few ghostly coughs, and noisy page-turns as evidence of this. The playing of the Sinfonieorchester Münster is good without ever being exceptional and the upper strings are prone to a degree of scrappiness that keeps them from being in the top division. But my greater concern is that conductor Fabrizio Ventura does not mould the music with the sensitivity or subtlety it requires. His is a rather broad-brush cinematic approach that can make for exciting passages and big climaxes but somehow detracts from a sense that this is music of substance.

Timings of the outer movements are fairly similar between Ventura and La Vecchia. The 2nd movement Allegro molto vivace shows the greatest disparity, with La Vecchia nearly a full two minutes slower. Given that molto vivace instruction I have to say that here Ventura is probably right - I see Noseda is just 15 seconds slower than Ventura. It is probably this movement that is the most impressive of the disc although again the strings lack absolute clarity of articulation in this tricky writing. More disappointing is the closing Epilogo which Casella marks Adagio mistico and builds from a rather beautiful melody that he used in the third movement Adagio quasi andante. La Vecchia manages to make this passage sound as valedictory and transfigurative as it can do, whereas Ventura descends into bombast. Part of the issue is that the recording - perhaps a sonic characteristic of the hall -seems to emphasise the middle and low frequencies which somehow clutter the sound picture. I did listen to this disc in SA-CD stereo not 5.1 so perhaps the latter would help clarify this better.

The coupling is one of the brief suites of music Casella drew from his 1931 opera La Donna Serpente. Both Noseda and La Vecchia offer both suites as part of their Casella surveys - although neither as part of a coupling with the 2nd Symphony. The three movements are all relatively briefly and attractive in an undemanding way. Certainly, the purchase of the disc would be dictated by the Symphony, rather than this coupling. The bi-lingual German/English booklet is brief but adequate. Unless the attraction of the SA-CD format outweighs other considerations I do not think this new disc seriously challenges pre-existing options.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Stephen Greenbank ~ Michael Wilkinson



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