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Vittorio Gui: The Last Concert
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony no. 4 in E minor, op. 98 [40:40]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Symphony no. 40 in G minor, K. 550 [26:28]
Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Vittorio Gui
Recorded live at the Teatro Comunale di Firenze, 5th October 1975
WARNER FONIT 5046712012 [67:20]

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On 5th October 1975 Vittorio Gui had not long celebrated his 90th birthday (on 14th September). Although he had reached an age when every day might be his last he had no particular reason to suppose that this concert would conclude his career; death actually arrived rather swiftly, just twelve days later.

Only very recently, when reviewing the reissue of his recording of Haydn’s "The Seasons", I suggested that this was a conductor whose art deserved greater currency and that the Italian radio archives should be examined. So is this the answer to a prayer – the great man’s final statements on two of his best loved composers, at the head of the orchestra he had founded (as the Orchestra Stabile di Firenze) in 1928?

Well, yes and no. Undoubtedly the occasion must have been a moving one, and the disc will be a pleasant memento for anyone who was present, or who has fond memories of hearing this conductor "in the flesh". But this is precisely the problem. You would have to be middle-aged at least to have personal memories of a concert conducted by Gui, and somewhat more to have attended one of his performances at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden or any other opera house. The recording world invited him to set down three imperishable Rossini sets, plus a highly regarded Figaro and a few other operas; to the world today, even in Italy, he is virtually an unknown factor as a conductor of the symphonic repertoire. Might it have been better to sacrifice stereo sound and delve back to the days when he was a youngster in his seventies and still at the height of his powers?

Again, yes and no. The recording is a full-blooded, lively one and enables us to hear only too well that the Florence orchestra was at that time an accident-prone, raucously undisciplined band. But, rather like the recordings conducted by Pablo Casals in his 90s, there is a sense of occasion in which you can still get caught up. The RAI’s Rome orchestra, of which a tape exists of a 1958 performance of the Brahms under Gui, and which could possibly have been issued instead, is not exactly blemish-free but has a leaner sound, with plenty of details of balancing and articulation to suggest that Gui’s younger self had intervened much more thoroughly rather than limiting himself to the grand outlines. On the other hand, there is an all-or-nothing feeling to the late performance which the earlier one doesn’t quite seem to match, in so far as my dim off-the-air copy enables me to judge.

The truth is that Gui should have been invited to record Brahms – of whom he had been a standard-bearer in Italy no less than Toscanini – in Vienna or Berlin, and either of the two performances is sufficient to make that point. For Gui’s recipe in Brahms was simple but sublime; he chose the right tempi (this is subjective but he had a way of making his tempi sound absolutely right) and got the orchestra to play its heart out. As far as tempi are concerned, the two performances differ in each movement only by a few seconds, so the late performance is not compromised either by haste à la Toscanini or plodding à la Klemperer. On both occasions the first movement is swift compared with Klemperer or Boult (just to take two of his near contemporaries) and the opening is not gently eased into. It is as though a window is opened onto something that is already happening. Both times, too, the music surges naturally into the second subject with an ease not often matched. His slow movement has a longer timing than either Boult or Klemperer (whose Brahms was not particularly slow), but more because he finds no need to press ahead with the hammering triplet passages. His scherzo is full of energy and he is notably successful in dropping into exactly the right pace for the "poco sostenuto" passage. The finale is remarkable for the ease with which each variation emerges from the preceding one, as well as for its inexorable overall sweep. A great interpretation, then, and you could hardly fail to be swept up by the Florence performance once, but it really is too fallible orchestrally to permit frequent hearings. I should be interested to hear what a sympathetic re-mastering of the earlier tapes could produce.

The start of the Mozart left me frankly flabbergasted. It is so slow, and not only that, the theme is completely legato, with the accompaniment very gentle, all quite without the drive which we normally expect. As it went on I began to see a sort of sense to it, and the forte passages actually have great conviction; where Klemperer, at a similar tempo, sounds merely sedate, Gui certainly does not "go gentle into that good night", he truly rages. The slow movement is unusually fast, two-in-a-bar not six, and also very legato, thus avoiding the danger of slogging which attends slower performances. The minuet is broad but tough, the finale quite (as opposed to very) fast and again, weighty. A curious and interesting interpretation, but the question is, did Gui always conduct it that way? In this case I have no earlier comparison, but I do have a 39th symphony recorded in Naples in 1961 which is quite weighty but has a grip, vitality and character which are not much in evidence here. So in the case of Mozart, I fear that the reduction of the interpretation to its broad outlines has seriously compromised it. I would be frankly surprised if the RAI archives could not produce a Gui 40th from the ’fifties or ’sixties but if there isn’t one, then the 39th I mentioned would serve the conductor’s memory much better, as would his 1957 Così fan tutte or his 1960 Requiem.

As I say, the record shows that even in his 91st year Gui could generate a sense of occasion, but I cannot imagine anybody hearing this without wishing he could hear the conductor performing the same pieces ten or twenty years earlier.

Christopher Howell

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