Casella’s Second Symphony Dazzles Under Ventura

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CASELLA: Symphony No. 2. “La Donna Serpente,” Suite No. 1 / Münster Symphony Orchestra; Fabrizio Ventura, conductor / Ars Produktion ARS38232

I’ve long been puzzled as to why so much hoopla has been given to composers Puccini, Mascagni and Respighi (although Respighi was clearly the best of those three) while the music of Alfredo Casella and Giorgio Ghedini languished in obscurity. Surely the exceptional quality of their music was enough to make it welcome in the concert halls of the late 20th century, but such was not the case. Then again, these came concert halls were never very welcoming to Casella’s and Respighi’s teacher, Giuseppe Martucci, who has been slammed by posterity as being merely a pale imitator of Brahms.

Born in 1883 and coming to prominence by his 19th birthday, Casella is clearly a late Romantic, but his music has inspired and fascinating touches of Strauss, Debussy and even Scriabin in his use of harmony and orchestration. This second symphony, which premiered a mere 10 days after Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in Paris in 1910, is clearly one of the composer’s most gripping and original works. In addition to the composers noted above, this work also contains a few touches I would call Mahlerian, particularly in the use of basses and cellos to anchor the orchestra while tympani and cymbals thunder behind them. For the most part, the orchestra focuses on the lower and mid ranges of all the instruments, only occasionally swirling up to highr realms and then only for accent and emphasis. Little tunes that do not sound quite Italianate come and go in the course of this movement, interspersed with the more dramatic passages. At 11:01 Casella even seems to be channeling the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold by using very low strings and winds to sustain long-held chords. And through it all, conductor Fabrizio Ventura pushes the Münster Symphony Orchestra to give every ounce of passion and feeling in this music.

The edgy scherzo in the second movement, written several years before the rest of the symphony, has more in common with Russian composers than German or Italian, centered around an ostinato C minor rhythm of triplet-quarter note-triplet-quarter note-etc., above which the orchestra swirls. Eventually there is a surprising switch to C major as the orchestra plays a more Alpine-like tune before returning to the agitation of the opening. Casella colors his orchestra here with a xylophone and splashes of winds against a sea of brass and lower strings. Tympani and growling low brass also usher in the restless slow movement in F-sharp minor, which uses a singing cantabile melody in a manner that goes in and out of darkness and sunlight. Downward wind passages play against edgy strings while the French horns interject comments.

The last movement is oddly split in two, an 11-minute march-to-the-scaffold-type grotesquerie in C minor and a seven-minute “Epilogue” afterward. Casella pulled out all the stops in this magnificent finale, coming up with themes and sub-themes of astounding invention and orchestral color. Eventually, around 8:40, the music slows down to a funereal pace with funereal music to match. The Epilogue picks up from the turgid last moments of the 4th movement and slowly rises into a more positive nimbus of strings and winds, somewhat like the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony, rising to a heroic and upbeat climax of trumpets and trombones with trilling violins to send them off.

I found Ventura’s performance of this symphony significantly better than that of Francesco La Vecchia on Naxos and with far more atmosphere than the rushed, glib reading by Gianandrea Noseda. I would encourage Ventura to record all of Casella’s symphonies, so superb is this reading.

Casella’s only opera, La Donna Serpente, was based on a fantastic tale by Carlo Gozzi, whose work also inspired Wagner (Die Feen), Puccini and Busoni (Turandot) and Prokofiev (Love for Three Oranges), but the critics dismissed the work when it was premiered in 1932. This led Casella to condense some of the best musical ideas from the opera into two short suites, of which the first is presented here. Once again Ventura gets into the spirit of the music better than his competitors, bringing out much more color and an intense feeling in the instrumental choirs.

This is a first-rate CD, well worth acquiring for fans of this oft-neglected Italian composer.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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