If you had told me in January 2010 that within 12 months I would have two recordings of Casella's Second Symphony in my collection, forgive me fair reader if I had cast you a look of disbelief, for at that time I had never even heard of Casella ! But life - like the Classical Music Industry of the Twenty First Century - has a habit of occasionally throwing our way pleasant surprises and this symphony is indeed one of them.
Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) was a very important and influential figure within the musical circles of Italy between the two world wars. His earlier music was massively influenced by Gustav Mahler and indeed Casella did much to further the cause of the Austrian composer, arranging the French premiere of the Resurrection Symphony in Paris and preparing a two handed piano transcription of the Seventh Symphony at the behest of Mahler himself. Later he came under the spell of Stravinsky, in particular the Russian's more ascerbic later style of composition, sharing a mutual delight with him in neo-classicism (Casella worked tirelessly to revive interest in Scarlatti and Vivaldi and also composed some pieces in homage to those then forgotten masters). That Casella's music has largely disappeared from our musical radar could in part be explained by him being a supporter of Mussolini (as was Puccini and Respighi), but unlike his two illustrious forebears, Casella died after war, after which his influence, fame and works were largely erased from Italy's collective conscience; his death in 1947 at the relatively young age of 64 further assisted his decline into forgotten oblivion.
To call the main work under consideration here Mahlerian would be unfair to the distinctive voice of Casella, yet such a description does give an idea of the work's ambition and far flung vistas, as well as the size of the orchestra involved. When two recordings of the same work were released in the first half of 2010, I was torn between which one to get, the attractive price point of the Naxos being equally tempting as the hard-won reputation of engineering excellence of the Chandos. If ultimately I chose the Chandos it was because being British, I was more familiar with the work of the BBCPO and Gianandrea Noseda than the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma and Francesco La Vecchia, but ultimately this counts for nothing since I now have both recordings in my collection and both are keepers. So what follows is a brief comparison of the two recordings, which I hope will help you decide which one to investigate further, or not.
The symphony opens in the most arresting manner, tolling bells over a heavy ostinato of bass intruments and percussion and within the first few seconds the difference in character between the two performances becomes apparent, the greater depth of the Chandos sound allowing Noseda and his orchestra to emerge from the mists most strikingly. La Vecchia, with a heavier tread and closer recording, sounds more ominous and whilst there is little to chose between the two performances in this movement, one has to say that the finer sound of the Chandos disc just about shades it here. It is similar story in the second movement,a tarantella infused Allegro molto vivace, where La Vecchia's more measured tread and punchier sound has greater impact and thrust when compared to the Chandos. Unfortunately he speeds up the marvellous horn led Pesante episode when the music switches from its tonic of C minor to major, whereas Noseda at a more relaxed pace, finds a nice lilt in the music, the extra space allowing his players time to relish the music's pungent colourings when compared to their more hurried sounding Italian colleagues. So if the Noseda performance is ahead on points at this point, all changes with the Straussian central Adagio, quasi andante; Casella must have been pleased with the music he wrote for this movement (and indeed it is glorious) as save for one or two re-orchestrations it is lifted more or less complete from his First Symphony. Noseda is more Andante to La Vecchia's Adagio at this point, but the slower speed allows the latter to build the movement's glorious central climax with greater skill, his violins soaring wonderfully above the orchestra, articulating the melody more prominently than those of the BBCPO in the more integrated sound picture conjured by Noseda and Chandos; taking thirteen minutes to Noseda's eleven, the Italian performance is indisputably the finer. The final movement is split into two parts, beginning with a march inspired episode vaguely reminiscent to that of Pan's in Mahler's Third Symphony where there is little to choose between La vecchia and Noseda at all, the closer sounding Naxos carrying perhaps a little more cut and thrust than the Chandos, which in turn comes into its own during the Epilogue. This, correctly in my opinion, is tracked separately by Chandos unlike its Naxos counterpart and another reviewer has expressed disappointment with its content, a reworking of the main theme of the Adagio into a triumphant conclusion, not unlike the manner of Alfano's reworking of Nessun Dorma in his ending for Turandot. Perhaps after what has gone before, this symphony's ending deserved more originality, but if it is going to be done this way I for one cannot imagine it being done better. As the symphony works itself up to a very grand and exultant conclusion, the greater depth of the Chandos engineering allows one to appreciate the thrilling immediacy of the organ's proud entry, a point that is missed on the rival Naxos version. Indeed as the symphony steams onto the final page with those thrilling hammer blows from the timps, La Vecchia sprints to the finishing line whereas Nosedra holds the tempo steady, more satisfying and grandiose as a result.
Both discs have couplings of works for piano and orchestra, each different. I can understand why Chandos would want to include Scarlattiana on their disc, Casella's homage to that old Italian master and probably his most famous work. Indeed, it is delightful, sparkles like the finest champagne and as such deserves to be sampled on its own; after the collosus of the Second Symphony it does rather seem a little trivial. The coupling on the Naxos disc is A Notte Alta (In Deepest Night) for Piano and Orchestra, a darker, more sensuous piece than Scarlattiana, at times suggestive of de Falla's Night in the Garden of Spain where the perfumed warmth of Spanish night is replaced by something colder, with shadows that are darker, the glitter more sinister. Both are enjoyable.
To summarise, if it is the Symphony you are after, then I have to recommend Noseda first; Adagio apart, it is a marginally better interpretation than the La Vecchia and the sound is at key points more spectacular. If you thrill to that then you really cannot go wrong by acquiring the La Vecchia version as well, with a different coupling, where the more scherzando elements of the symphony come off with greater cut and thrust and the central Adagio is really done better. You may also like to sample the same composer's First Symphony with the same forces on Naxos, a more loosely constructed work, more exuberant and perhaps more fun. Casella nuts, like myself, will of course want everything !