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Casella: Symphony No 2, A Notte Alta / La Vecchia, Sun Hee You, Rome Sinfonica

Casella / Hee You / La Vecchia
Release Date: 07/27/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572414   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Alfredo Casella
Performer:  Sun Hee You
Conductor:  Francesco La Vecchia
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rome Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 17 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

La Vecchia’s world premiere recording really does deserve the winner’s pennant.


CASELLA Symphony No. 2. A notte alta 1 Francesco La Vecchio, cond.; Rome SO; 1 Sun Hee You (pn) NAXOS 8.572414 (76:55)

Now that we have a more than respectable reading Read more of Casella’s overheated Second Symphony on Chandos, the primary interest in this release—the second in Naxos’s projected Casella orchestral cycle—is the premiere recording of one of the strangest and thus largely uncharacteristic works in his catalog, A notte alta (In Deepest Night) of 1917. Written first for solo piano, then orchestrated a few years later, this 21-minute work is a kind of symphonic poem for piano and orchestra—in the composer’s own words, the “only programmatic work” he ever attempted. The music and scenario were inspired by the composer’s romantic infatuation with a piano student who was eventually to become his second wife. The music is suffused with a dour, forbidding atmosphere that annotator David Gallagher chooses to describe as “expressionistic,” though there is little of the type of chromatic Angst identified with the Second Vienna School. The style of writing is closer to a variant of Impressionism that Gallagher astutely likens to that of Charles Koechlin—at least in his early period—who was a fellow student of Casella’s in Fauré’s classes. In any case, it makes for a very moodily evocative and compelling score fraught with brooding soliloquizing, which graphically represents the transitional phase in Casella’s now accelerated evolution to a solid neobaroque Modernism in the early 1920s. In fact, later issues in this Naxos series will offer several other first recordings of music from this very interesting period.

As to this particular performance of the Second Symphony, suffice it to note that each of its four movements is considerably longer here than on the Chandos version. Whether this is due to conductor La Vecchio’s decision to wallow a little more in the score’s Mahlerian morasses or due to the orchestra’s professional conservatism, it is impossible to be sure. But, as in their Naxos recording of Casella’s First Symphony, there is no doubting the full commitment of everyone involved, matched by a bright but broad-based acoustic from the Italian engineers. Of course, the sudden and surprising advent of alternate recordings of two of these early symphonies of Casella’s has got to be a reflection of the importance of his later accomplishments both as a composer and an advocate in the development of modern Italian music. He was not really a seasoned symphonist, though a case can be made for the power of the Third Symphony (first available on cpo but about to appear in this series as well).

At the bargain price, A notte alta makes this disc an indispensable one.

FANFARE: Paul A. Snook

In my recent review of Casella’s Symphony No. 1 I applauded Naxos for their part in reviving this composer’s fortunes. And now, having lived with his S ymphony No. 2 for several weeks – in both this and the Chandos version from Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Phil – I’m even more convinced that this is a major find. Although Casella’s admiration for Gustav Mahler is evident in the harmonic language and overall structure of this symphony, it’s all too easy to overstate the latter’s influence. In fact, one can just as easily hear Richard Strauss and a slew of Russian Romantics too. That said, his and Mahler’s second symphonies share the same key – C minor – and while Casella’s doesn’t end with a chorus it does have a splendid finale for full orchestra and organ.
Mahler’s shade does indeed haunt the first movement, although perhaps there’s more than a touch of Scriabin in those lush harmonies. And surely those beating timps at 5:32 evoke something of Respighi’s Roman trilogy? Despite these echoes the music is not at all overblown or derivative; it has real individuality and a pleasing economy of style. As for the orchestra, they’re recorded in a wide, deep acoustic that suits the symphony very well, especially in those thumping tuttis. But it’s the quiet, more reflective moments that tend to catch the ear - those rising figures reminiscent of Strauss at his most noble. Structurally, this music hangs together pretty well, but then La Vecchia doesn’t allow it to stutter or stall. Noseda’s no slouch either – he’s a minute faster in this movement – but really I’d be hard-pressed to choose between either at this point.
The second movement is no less impressive, building to a series of vaunting climaxes, the Roman brass and percussion thrillingly caught. And while Naxos recordings can be a little bright and shallow, this one has plenty of warmth and weight. There’s lots of subtlety as well, the jaunty little tune that appears at 4:10 much better balanced – and more characterful – than it is on the Chandos recording. Even the cymbals and bass drum are more tellingly presented on the Naxos disc, which gives La Vecchia a slender lead in this movement at least.
And if you think you’ve heard the Adagio before, it’s because Casella lifted it from his First Symphony, albeit rescored. From its muted – somewhat martial – beginning to its lovely string tunes and beyond, the heart of this symphony beats with a strength and ardour that is glorious to behold. La Vecchia judges the ebb and flow of this music to perfection, the disruptive timps as menacing as one could wish for. And as much as I admire Noseda in this movement – a swift 10:48 to La Veccha’s more leisurely 13:01 – that rising theme just doesn’t take wing in the same way it does on the Naxos disc. La Vecchia gives the music plenty of room to breathe, and that really pays dividends here. So, the Romans take the palm once more.
The strange mood of the final movement, that Mahlerian ‘Callots manier’ if you will, is very well conveyed in both readings, but if anything the Italian orchestra sound especially febrile, the brass glowering even more ferociously than they do for Noseda. In many ways the sharper, more analytical Naxos recording serves this music well; indeed, it’s hard to imagine the trudging brass and haloed cymbals better captured than they are here. As for the expansive Epilogo section – cued separately on the Chandos disc – both conductors certainly major on the mistico, the Manchester organ notable for its impact. This echt-Mahlerian apotheosis has all the implacable grandeur of a galleon, its sails unfurling, its prow wheeling towards home. Both Noseda and La Vecchia are fine helmsmen, and steer with authority and skill. Even so, the latter makes the crack of wind in canvas seem even more dramatic, those joyous bells and orchestral billows superbly done.
The filler, A notte alta, is an unsettling – and accomplished – piece of nachtmusik. Right from the start the shimmer of gongs captures the music’s deeply ambivalent mood. The Korean pianist Sun Hee You is sympathetically recorded, his largely subdued contributions adding splashes of colour to an otherwise dark canvas. This is Casella in a grittier frame of mind – there are searing sonorities and dynamic spikes here – but, as expected, La Vecchia and his Roman band make the most of this diverting oddity.
Time to tot up the scores. It’s a tough call, but La Vecchia’s world premiere recording – taped a year before Noseda’s – really does deserve the winner’s pennant. True, both conductors illuminate the symphony in different ways, but the Naxos version scores very highly in terms of opulence, weight and telling insights. Noseda is just too brisk at times, whereas La Vecchia is more relaxed, bringing out the many felicities of this score. As for fillers, Chandos offer a cracking performance of Scarlattiana, played by Martin Roscoe – but then their disc costs twice as much. Honestly, both recordings are excellent, and I wouldn’t want to be without either.
-- Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 2 in C minor, Op. 12 by Alfredo Casella
Conductor:  Francesco La Vecchia
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rome Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1908-1910; Italy 
A notte alta, Op. 30 by Alfredo Casella
Performer:  Sun Hee You (Piano)
Conductor:  Francesco La Vecchia
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rome Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1917; Italy 

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