United States Rossini, Rachmaninoff, and Casella: Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Simon Trpčeski (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 27.11.2015 (BJ)
Rossini: Overture to La gazza ladra
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Casella: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 12
Where has Alfredo Casella been all my life?
The answer, at least so far as his Second Symphony is concerned, seems to be nowhere I would have been likely to encounter him. For this performance was billed as the work’s US premiere, and I had certainly never heard it either here, or in my native England, or on travels all across Europe.
And the loss has been considerable, because the work struck me, in this spectacular performance, as nothing short of a masterpiece. Living in Paris at the time, Casella composed it when he was 25. That was the age at which Mahler was engaged in writing his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and had not yet embarked on a symphony.
One of the most extraordinary things about this Second Symphony is that in it Casella, a dedicated Mahler fan who helped materially in the dissemination of the older composer’s music, could produce a work at once obviously influenced by Mahler and yet utterly different in musical substance.
Mahler’s symphonies, when he came to write them, would be notable for the crisp, almost bare clarity of their textures, and for the frequent passages of chamber-musical scoring that coexist alongside their more massive elements. Casella’s Symphony No. 2 is a work massive in scoring almost all the way through, and its textures are at an opposite, far more richly saturated, and more pervasively chromatic extreme from Mahler’s.
Laid out in four well contrasted and never over-extended movements, the symphony begins amid ominous bell sounds, and, after covering a wide expressive range from the meditative to the exuberant, ends some fifty minutes later in a huge, gradually swelling Epilogue, scored with extraordinary skill for full orchestra underpinned by the deep tones–and vibrations–of the organ. I cannot imagine a finer performance than the one Noseda drew from the Philadelphia Orchestra. His totally committed and wonderfully eloquent conducting, now with admirably free and independent use of the left hand, swept away the small reservations I have expressed in previous reviews. This was very clearly the master conductor that the musicians so much respect and enjoy playing for.
The symphony was so emphatically the high point of the evening as to throw wholly in the shade a competent but relatively unsparkling performance of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody with Simon Trpčeski at the piano, and a rather stiff account of Rossini’s Gazza ladra overture in which, unless you were specifically listening for it, one of the composer’s cutest orchestral jokes would have gone for nothing, since the surprise delayed horn chords it depends on were balanced too softly to make their effect.
And where has Alfredo Casella been all your life? Well, I ordered Noseda’s CD of the symphony the morning after the concert. If you would like to share my sense of delighted revelation, go and do likewise.
P.S. It occurs to me to wonder whether anything of significance can be inferred from the way a conductor’s baton arrives on stage. From the public’s point of view, as Sir Adrian Boult pointed out, the performance begins not with the first note of the music but with the conductor’s first steps onto the platform. No one who saw Carlo Maria Giulini conduct can ever forget, surely, the frisson of esoteric mystery created when he emerged from the wings with that long baton held gravely in front of him at a 45-degree angle. Noseda, like many of his colleagues, has the orchestra librarian bring the stick on with the scores and put on the desk for him to pick up, which seems somehow more prosaic. For that matter, the inveterately self-effacing Hans Rosbaud’s entrance was often striking in a more informal way. At the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, he would eschew the long staircase by which conductors and soloists usually descend to the stage–a dozen and more steps that I know from experience are highly nerve-wracking–and appear unobtrusively from a side door with the scores for the evening held firmly under his arm. The audience would think he was just a functionary until he turned toward them and bowed.