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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Peter llyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture (1880)
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Guido Cantelli
Romeo and Juliet recorded 13th October 1951, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road; Symphony No.6 recorded 22-28th October 1952, Royal Festival Hall.
Full Price
TESTAMENT SBT 1316 [61’44]

 

When Guido Cantelli died in an air crash on 25th November 1956 he was only 36; had his lifetime spanned that of most conductors (usually a long one) he would have been 84 this year, and quite possibly the conductor with the greatest reputation of them all. He was preternaturally gifted – and insecure and volatile with it – with an ear for inner dynamics and intonation that was almost unique. An almost obsessive care for taking a composer’s note values as written could have led to performances that were dry in character but Cantelli galvanised orchestras into playing of wanton electricity, especially in the studio where – despite the intensive rehearsals – they played as if in the concert hall. Where for many conductors bar rests are exactly that, for Cantelli they are atmospherically intense with the notes either side of the rest miraculously conjoined. Put simply, a Cantelli performance is always a gripping journey and Testament’s reissue of two of the conductor’s greatest records is ample evidence of that.

Cantelli conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in the concert hall twenty five times between September 1951 and July 1956, his final concerts being two incandescent performances of Verdi’s Requiem (never broadcast, like so many of Cantelli’s concerts with this orchestra). This performance of Romeo and Juliet was recorded in October 1951, just fourteen days after Cantelli’s first public concert with the Philharmonia where the work appeared in the first half of a concert that included Mendelssohn, and in the second half Busoni and Ravel (a typical Cantelli programme). The recording is a performance of considerable impact – at times it is really explosive – and gives as good an impression as any of the ‘time-bomb’ that hit the orchestra at the time. Musicians who played with Cantelli have spoken of a talent that was physically uncontrollable, emotional to such a degree that the conductor frequently had to leave the podium to recover. In every way, Romeo and Juliet shows Cantelli at his most fiery and inspired.

But what makes this recording the greatest performance of the work ever committed to disc is the symbiosis between a great conductor and a great orchestra working at one. Compare the Philharmonia with the NBC Symphony Orchestra (on a 12 disc set on Music & Arts) in a performance of the work made in February 1952 - and very marginally quicker than this studio performance – and the sense that the Philharmonia are more galvanised by their conductor than their American counterparts becomes self-evident. The great trumpet solo (11’32 on Music & Arts, 12’00 on Testament) is a case in point. Harold Jackson’s peerless playing for the Philharmonia has an almost unhinged, free-flowing wildness to it; in contrast, the NBC trumpet player seems almost held back and inhibited. And, even allowing for the comparative boxiness of the NBC recording the Philharmonia woodwind are so much more characterful in their phrasing. The very opening of the work – on low clarinets and bassoon – has the Philharmonia players (the incomparable clarinets of Frederick Thurston and Bernard Walton and the warm, majestic bassoon of Cecil James) playing with brooding intensity, a near perfect harmonic mirror to the dark playing Cantelli conjures from the ‘cellos and basses at bar 11. In contrast, the phrasing of the NBC woodwind is almost perfunctory. Listen to the growling low strings at 16’00 in the Testament reissue and you are hearing not just string playing of uncommon tautness but also string playing of uncommon depth. The entire performance is overflowing with touches such as these. One listens to it with not just a sense of awe but with a sense of magical bewilderment. The sheer technical brilliance of the orchestral playing – such as the ascending violin scales at 12’22 – put the performance in a class of its own.

The recording of Tchaikovsky’s B minor symphony – made a year later – is perhaps not quite so fabulous as the Romeo and Juliet, although it is still remarkable. If the latter work shows Cantelli to be more akin to Furtwängler – a sense of desolation mixed with the sheerly inspirational – then the symphony reveals Cantelli as being closer to his mentor, Toscanini. Cantelli’s performance of the work is unsentimental to an almost desultory degree yet Furtwängler achieved similar results in his incomparable 1938 recording (Naxos 8.110865) with greater expansiveness and expressivity (Cantelli is almost four minutes quicker in the opening movement). Cantelli’s achievement, however, is to remain irreproachably close to Tchaikovsky’s note values and dynamic markings without actually drawing attention to them. Architecturally, there are few recorded performances that flow so naturally as Cantelli’s with the Philharmonia giving it a sense of unity over the four movements that is masterly. One may quibble at the way Cantelli takes the first movement’s collapse into despair but, as with his treatment of the brass and percussion in Romeo and Juliet, there is never any sense that we are being treated to an existential drama of orchestral dynamics that isn’t in the score. Cantelli’s approach is certainly a valid one – and with wondrously expressive and technically inspired orchestral playing one of the more keenly wrought performances on disc – but somehow the sublime tragedy of this symphony is underwhelming, the lack of interpretation almost anti-Romantic to an obsessive degree. Listen to Takashi Asahina in a 1997 performance with the Osaka Philharmonic (Pony Canyon PCCl-00558) and you have a performance that remains both fastidiously close to Tchaikovsky’s markings as well as being successfully able to embrace the innate Romanticism of the symphony.

The Cantelli performances have only once before appeared on CD – back in 1989 on EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century. Those transfers did as best they could with EMI’s rather disappointing recording (especially for the Romeo and Juliet) but the Testament reissue is simply glorious. The Romeo and Juliet is now much more atmospheric (though I suspect some will find what blossom there was in the upper strings has been sacrificed for a much greater emphasis on the surrounding bass). The performance has never sounded darker than it does here, nor more thrilling. Climaxes have much more restraint than in the EMI CD – and both are an improvement on the original LP. The B minor symphony was made in the Royal Festival Hall (a much better acoustic to record in when empty where the dryness is less noticeable) and again Testament’s transfer is darker in quality than the 1989 issue (and at times rather less stark than I remember the recording sounding). Although I have not been able to detect any significant changes in the pitch given to the transfer Testament’s timings are radically different from EMI’s. EMI time the first movement of the symphony at 16’07, Testament at 16’20 and in the final movement EMI at 9’01 and Testament at 9’12.

This disc is a mandatory purchase for anyone interested in great conducting and great orchestral playing. Together, Cantelli and the Philharmonia reach levels of inspiration most conductors and orchestras – even great ones – can sometimes only dream of. The performance of Romeo and Juliet alone would have confirmed Cantelli as one of the very greatest conductors. I doubt it will ever be surpassed, and only very rarely will you ever hear anything as thrilling.

Marc Bridle

 



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