Guido Cantelli - Thirtieth Concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra
Franz SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828) Symphony No. 8, ‘Unfinished’, in B minor, D759 [21:38]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 -1976) Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 [20:44]
Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883) Rienzi: Overture [11:59]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Guido Cantelli
rec. ‘live’, Carnegie Hall, New York, 3 January 1953

Guido Cantelli’s life was cut cruelly short before he had time to leave a substantial legacy of studio recordings. Happily, many concert recordings exist, especially of performances that he gave in the USA, and as these are issued on CD we have more opportunities to admire the very special talents of this Italian maestro.

Many of these recordings consist of performances with either the New York Philharmonic or, as here, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. We learn from the notes on the Pristine Audio website that accompany this release that Cantelli gave forty concerts with the NBC orchestra, more than any other conductor apart from Toscanini himself. Cantelli’s biographer, Keith Bennett has an extensive collection of tapes of these concerts, including this present one, and Pristine are hoping to issue more of them. If they do, there will probably be some overlap between, for example, the three boxes of such recordings issued by Testament or with the marvellous bumper box of recordings from Music & Arts. However, there’s no such duplication here, save that one of the Testament boxes (SBT 1306) contains a different performance of the Rienzi overture.

The Rienzi performance, which closes this particular programme, is a good one. The ‘Rienzi’s Prayer’ theme is unfolded very spaciously (track 6, from 1:41). Some may think it too broad, but I love it, especially since Cantelli obtains such warm playing. Later on the tub-thumping sub-Weber allegro material is pretty empty stuff but Cantelli makes as good a case for it as possible.

I admire very much his account of the Schubert symphony. In the first movement there’s no autumnal, valedictory dawdling. Instead, Cantelli’s reading is purposeful and darkly dramatic. After his finely focused account of I, the second movement is unfolded quite beautifully. In his note, Keith Bennett draws attention to the fact that in Cantelli’s 1955 studio recording (EMI) with the Philharmonia, this movement lasted for over a minute longer. This tauter New York account doesn’t feel unduly hasty, though.

For many collectors the main interest in this release will lie in the inclusion of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. Apparently this was the only piece of English music that Cantelli ever performed and this present performance is one of just six that he’s known to have given. The performance is interesting on another account. It took place just twelve years after the première of the work - also given in New York, by Barbirolli. Nowadays this is a very familiar work but in 1953 it must have been very new both to performers and players. This may even be only the second recording of the work to survive. There is a recording of Barbirolli and the NYPSO giving the second performance of the work, the day after its première (NMC D030) but the sound quality is very poor and the recording is really only of archival interest. This blistering Cantelli reading is quite another matter, not least because the sound quality is so good. Subsequent to the première - and possibly as a result of listening to the off-air recording - Britten expressed the view that Barbirolli’s speeds for the first and third movement were too slow. It’s interesting to note, therefore, that Cantelli takes 9:04 for the first movement (Barbirolli 9:50) and 6:05 for the third (Barbirolli 8:05). Barbirolli is a trifle faster overall in the second movement (4:58 against Cantelli’s 5:35).

What impresses most of all about this Cantelli performance is its sheer power. The first movement is dreadful - in the true sense of the word - full of lowering menace. In the opening pages especially it’s clear that Cantelli understands the ominous tread of the music and he builds the movement to a shattering climax (track 3, from 6:49) with some fearfully powerful brass playing. The entire passage from this point to the movement’s close is literally awesome. 
The scalding second movement spits and snarls and after that Cantelli judges and paces the beneficently calm finale quite beautifully. I suggested earlier that many of the players would have been unfamiliar with this music. If so, it never shows. They respond to Cantelli’s direction ardently. This is a very considerable account of the score and makes one wonder what Peter Grimes might have been like under Cantelli’s baton.

I’m delighted to report that the very superior music-making on this disc is conveyed in excellent sound. Andrew Rose has done a splendid job in remastering the recording. One can only hope that more of these Cantelli issues will soon be forthcoming and while the focus is likely to be on New York one wonders if it might be possible also to issue performances given with, say, the Chicago or Boston Symphony Orchestras. There is, for example, a superb 1954 Boston performance of Respighi’s Pines of Rome but so far as I know the only way to hear this at the moment is by investing in the BSO’s deluxe Symphony Hall Centennial Collection box of CDs.

For now, all admirers of Cantelli will be grateful for this issue from Pristine. Snap it up for the Britten especially. What a conductor!

John Quinn